03/21/2014 2:17PM

Jay Hovdey: Sunland Derby has become enchanting


Blame it on the Bird.

No single player is bigger than the game, or at least that’s what we are taught in school. But history has its way of producing exceptions to every rule.

Ayrton Senna was the greatest Formula 1 driver of the 1990s, but he pushed the envelope and drove with an aggressive abandon that antagonized his competitors and tested the safety limits of the sport. His death in May 1994 in a crash during the San Marino Grand Prix inspired changes to the cars and new emergency protocols. No Formula 1 driver has died in a race since then.

Playing as Lew Alcindor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar averaged 29 points per game during the 1966-67 season and led UCLA to the NCAA title. He was so dominant in the paint with his towering slams that for the following season, the dunk shot was ruled illegal. As a result, in 1967-68, Abdul-Jabbar averaged 26.2 points and led UCLA to another title. In 1977, the slam dunk returned.

Were it not for the Kentucky Derby victory of Mine That Bird in 2009, the 12th running of the Sunland Park Derby would not be worth $800,000. It would not carry 85 points toward inclusion in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field. And it certainly would not deserve the ongoing attention of deep stables like those of Todd Pletcher and Bob Baffert, who between them send out four of the nine entered in Sunday’s running.

Races are graded on the reputations of the horses who show up to run. What those horses have done before in graded races and go on to do afterward in graded races help determine where a race fits on the list of graded races, if it fits at all.

By 2009, however, Sunland Park officials had become impatient waiting for the graded stakes committee to grant their derby even minor graded status, and track owner Stan Fulton was ready to pull the plug on the huge purse. Then Mine That Bird came along to finish fourth at Sunland, win the Kentucky Derby, and finish second in the Preakness and third in the Belmont.

Presto! In 2010, the Sunland Derby received a Grade 3 rating and with it fellowship into the company of Kentucky Derby preps.

Mine That Bird will be on parade Sunday at Sunland Park, fresh from his close-up last Wednesday in Albuquerque, where “50 to 1” – the movie saga of his journey to the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle – had its premiere. Owners, trainers, and jockeys gunning for a cut of the 800-large owe Bird a pat on the neck for making it possible.

One of them is Peter Miller, who has sent Rockingham Ranch’s Garen to Sunland Park from his California stable based at San Luis Rey Downs. In three starts, Garen has won a maiden race, and that’s it, although he won it in a manner that inspired his people to make the trip to New Mexico. Miller was asked about his record at Sunland.

“I’m perfect, undefeated,” he said. “But I’ve never won anything there, either.”

Okay, so he makes his New Mexico debut for $800,000. Presumably, it was all those zeros that caught his eye.

“The money’s fantastic, but the Derby points would be a nice bonus,” Miller said. “A couple of works before his last race, he started to train like a really nice horse, really putting it together. There was a three-quarters work a couple weeks before his maiden win when he worked amazingly well. That’s when I said, ‘Wow, we might have something here.’ ”

No offense, but they already had something, at least on paper. Garen is a son of Street Cry (Zenyatta’s sire) out of the Argentinean mare Quendom. This makes him a half-brother to 2006 Horse of the Year Invasor, the winner of the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Classic and the 2007 Dubai World Cup. In 2013, Invasor was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

Garen made his first start Dec. 28 at Santa Anita and followed that with another sprint, then won his maiden race at 1 1/16 miles Feb. 17, going wire to wire under Victor Espinoza.

“Two sprints, then stretch him out,” Miller said. “That’s pretty conventional, especially since we never really thought 5 1/2 or six furlongs would be his lick.”

Invasor, it should be noted, won his first race going 5 1/2 furlongs and his first five starts in a row. It was in Uruguay, not exactly the center of the South American racing world, but in the end, it did not matter, as Invasor proved himself on three continents.

Garen was purchased at the May 2013 Barretts sale of 2-year-olds for $235,000.

“He’s not a particularly big horse,” Miller said. “I think that kind of kept his price down. If he was half a hand taller, he probably would have sold for twice the money. I liked him because he was very athletic, very well put together, and a very pretty mover.”

There are plenty of Thoroughbred brothers who have made an impact on the sport. The Sunland Derby could tells us if lightning might strike twice again.

“It hasn’t yet,” Miller said. “But the clouds are forming.”