04/21/2002 11:00PM

If your horse doesn't fit, stay home

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NEW YORK - A few years ago, the New York State Lottery had an advertising campaign that proclaimed, "You gotta be in it to win it." Well, it appears that slogan applies to this year's Kentucky Derby. In what has evolved into Thoroughbred racing's version of lottery fever, the connections of at least 24 3-year-olds want to run in the first leg of the Triple Crown on May 4, meaning that it is very likely this Derby will have the maximum field of 20 based on graded stakes earnings.

Of course, there is a flip side to the "you gotta be in it to win it" mentality: You can be in it, but that doesn't guarantee you're going to win it. As impossible as it may be to win the lottery, at least every number has an equal, random chance of being drawn. The horses who will run in the Derby are not, obviously, all of equal ability. This will be reflected on the tote board. If all the horses who are going to run in the Derby were of equal ability, every starter would go off at 15-1. Instead, you will have a favorite (Harlan's Holiday) of around 7-2 to 4-1. You will have mid-range horses with mid-range chances to win of between 15-1 and 30-1. And, you will have a group of rank outsiders whose odds of 80-1 to 100-1, and possibly higher, tell you that their chances of winning the Derby are almost as unlikely as winning the lottery.

It never ceases to amaze me that every year there are several owners and trainers who fly in the face of all logic and race hopeless longshots in the Kentucky Derby. While it is true that the Derby hasn't been a great race for favorites - in the last 22 runnings of the Derby, the only favorite who won was Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 - the romantic notion that the Derby is the race where the impossible happens is misguided. Even some of the biggest winning longshots in recent Derby history had some redeeming features. Charismatic, who paid $64.60 in the 1999 Derby, did win the Lexington Stakes two weeks before. Thunder Gulch, who returned $51 in the 1995 Derby, won both the Florida Derby and Fountain of Youth Stakes earlier in the season. By anyone's measure, the last truly unfathomable Derby winner was Canonero II a long 31 years ago, and to find another like him, you have to go back another 20 years to Count Turf. There will be horses in the starting gate for the Derby (around five by my count) who don't even have close to the qualifications of Charismatic or Thunder Gulch. Apparently, two truly inexplicable Derby results in the last 51 years are acceptable odds.

I have never owned a racehorse, and as much as I would love to, it's not going to happen unless I hit the lottery. So, I can only imagine what makes owners and trainers run 100-1 shots in the Derby. Yes, the Kentucky Derby is an amazing event, and there is nothing like being there. I would imagine that having a Derby starter, even the rankest outsider, is tremendously exciting. I would think being at your barn in the mornings on Derby week and receiving all sorts of media attention (yes, even 100-1 shots in the Derby get lots of media attention) is fulfilling to the ego. I would bet that entertaining family and friends on Derby Day at a table in the dining room and in box seats would make you feel like a very special person. And, I'm sure that being an owner in the paddock 20 minutes to the Derby is an indescribable thrill.

But then they run the race. Maybe you will get a jolt if your horse shows some speed, but he will get cooked in a speed duel, because there's always a speed duel in the Derby. If your horse is a plodder, you may not even get that momentary rush. Either way, where is the joy in seeing your horse beaten by about 16 others? What happens to the ego when your horse is beaten by 30 lengths, or eased? When this happens, and this is what happens the vast majority of the time, what is there to celebrate with family and friends? How depressing will that walk out of Churchill Downs and that post-race dinner be? Given what is overwhelmingly likely to happen, and in light of the damage you can do to your horse both physically and mentally by so completely overmatching him, is it still all worth it?