02/02/2011 4:11PM

Howard fights off Derby Fever

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Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Neil Howard has a trio of 3-year-old colts considered prospects for the Kentucky Derby.

ARCADIA, Calif. – There are Christmas decorations going up these days before Thanksgiving, and Christmas specials on the air by Veterans Day. Don’t deny it. You’ve seen them. You may even condone their existence. And while such trends do not signal that the apocalypse is upon us, it is definitely getting closer.

Which is why I refuse to deploy the words “Kentucky” and “Derby” anywhere in proximity until a certain calendar date has arrived. Now it has. Groundhog Day. Punxsutawney Phil poked his head out of his gaily decorated hole Tuesday morning at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pa., shrieked from the cold, and disappeared without a trace.

Still, if it is 90 days out from the First Saturday in May and no one has yet seen the shadow of Spectacular Bid, then the Derby is comprehensively up for grabs, and any list of contenders, to have any integrity at all, must include every breathing member of the 3-year-old generation.

As far as this racing fan is concerned, Spectacular Bid was the last 2-year-old to enter his 3-year-old campaign an absolute mortal lock to attain Derby glory. Think of all he overcame, which included his bombastic trainer Bud Delp, his rank beginner of a jockey Ron Franklin, and a nine-race juvenile campaign at eight different tracks that included a night race in New Jersey. After all that, Derby Week was a snap.

KENTUCKY DERBY NEWS: Track all the 3-year-olds on the Triple Crown trail

Compared to Spectacular Bid, today’s young 3-year-olds are a pampered crew, light on experience, shy to the touch, and yet overexposed by a racing and social media that comes across as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Triple Crown season, promoting participation in the Kentucky Derby as if it is the only way to justify the first five months of the year.

The meat-grinder began in earnest last weekend at Gulfstream with the Holy Bull Stakes, named for a horse who could have done without the Kentucky Derby. (On either side of Holy Bull’s “no mas” surrender in the 1994 Derby were victories in the Florida Derby, Blue Grass, Met Mile, Dwyer, Haskell, Travers, and Woodward, but no roses.) The fact that Nick Zito won the Holy Bull with Dialed In was music to the Derby chorus, since Nick – a two-time Derby winner who one year ran five horses – rarely needs to be talked into a trip to Louisville.

Then there is Neil Howard, who shows up for a Kentucky Derby about as often as Germany wins a war. He took his best, brightest shot in 1990 with Summer Squall, and the colt ran his race only to finish second to an inspired Unbridled. Two weeks later, Summer Squall won the Preakness.

An unsuspecting Howard went to work this week at Fair Grounds in New Orleans besieged by speculation that he was harboring no fewer than three live wires for the Derby. That’s what he gets for winning the maidens of two well-bred colts – Machen (by Distorted Humor) and Prime Cut (by Bernstein) – on top of winning the Lecomte Stakes in New Orleans with Wilkinson (by Lemon Drop Kid). Howard was asked if he was coming down with Derby Fever.

“I’ve got a little sore throat, yeah,” Howard replied. “I feel fine, though.”

Which was good news, but he did not answer the question. Has Neil Howard – famously conservative as a horseman, diplomatic by nature, deferential to the traditions of the game – caught that virulent bug that makes sane trainers circle Derby Day with a red marker and work backward from there with a horse at the first inkling of ability. That would be Derby Fever.

“No,” came his quick reply. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no.”

Okay, we’ll take that as a no.

“Maybe like Hawthorne Derby Fever, or the Zia Park Derby Fever,” Howard continued. “But not Kentucky Derby Fever.”

Now, he was just being goofy.

“I’m fortunate to have the kind of people I train for,” Howard said, referring to such clients as William Farish and the Dogwood Stable partnerships. “But they’re human when it comes to that subject. And when you’ve got a couple 3-year-olds that are maybe doing what you like to see them do, you can’t help thinking about it and talking about it.”

For Howard, this confession would pass as an admission of a weakness that he did not see much in evidence in his two famous mentors, MacKenzie Miller and Frank Whiteley. Neither Hall of Famer put the Derby high on their to-do list.

“Like me, they worked for people who indulged their trainers,” Howard said. “They give their trainers the leeway to do right by their horses, and that means do the right thing at the right time.”

Of course, somebody’s got to win the Kentucky Derby, and Howard would never turn it down. He’s from the Bronx, but like Brooklyn’s Nick Zito, he was turned by the charms of bluegrass country and its worship of the Thoroughbred racehorse. Howard simply wants to do it his way, and if he has to wait – Mack Miller was 72 when he won his Derby with Sea Hero, Charlie Whittingham was 73 for his first with Ferdinand – that’s okay by him. Howard turns 62 later this month.

“It seems anymore that a horse breaks it’s maiden, wins a non-winners, or one of these early preps, and all the talk begins,” Howard said. “There’s just too much that can happen to think that way.

“The Triple Crown – and specifically the Derby – does not lend itself to setbacks of any kind, no matter how minor,” he pointed out. “A little foot bruise, a low-grade temp that comes and goes in 48 hours – when you look back, they always affect you somehow. That’s part of the mystique of winning the Derby, and I guess that mystique is what’s so great about it.

“But you only really know for sure you’ve made it there somewhere around six o’clock on Derby Day,” Howard added, “and your horse is standing in the gate.”