04/21/2011 3:54PM

Kentucky Derby hopes subject to ailment

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Two weeks and counting until the Kentucky Derby craziness comes to an end, and so far this year the main characters have suffered through more problems than Yum! has Brands.

But we’ve been here many times before, and for experienced observers to be frustrated by the litany of maladies plaguing nice colts in the Derby mix is the height of disingenuity.

It started in February when Boys at Tosconova, the second-best 2-year-old colt in the country last year, was removed from training with what Rick Dutrow suspected was the early onset of a problem with a knee or an ankle.

A few days later, the impressive Sham Stakes winner, Tapizar, was found to have chipped a bone in a knee following his disappointing performance in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita. Surgery was required.

Neither of these relatively minor physical setbacks compared with the loss of Fort Hughes in March at Belmont Park, where he was preparing for his own run at the Kentucky Derby after winning the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes at Aqueduct. TA son of Henny Hughes, he fractured a cannon bone so severely he could not be saved.

To Honor and Serve, the third-best 2-year-old colt of last season, had the look of a Derby horse top to bottom before his untroubled flop in the Florida Derby sent his backers scurrying for the exits. He was discovered to have strained a ligament in his left fore ankle.

Premier Pegasus, the rousing winner of the San Felipe Stakes, was the next to go, cracking his left fore cannon bone working toward the Santa Anita Derby.

Then came the Wood Memorial, from which losing favorite Uncle Mo emerged with a detectable tummy infection and runner-up Arthur’s Tale, suddenly a name to recognize, was immediately sidelined with a splint bone injury, again to the left fore.

With such a steady downpour of bad news besetting the best and brightest of the generation, was anyone truly shocked – shocked! – to learn after the Arkansas Derby that The Factor, who finished seventh as the heavy favorite, displaced his palate?

On a scale of one-to-euthanized, a displaced palate is not much more serious than an ingrown nose hair or a little chafing around the cinch. In fact, the displaced palate is the losing-favorite excuse of choice on a long list of excuses compiled by Kenny Mayne, ESPN’s resident burster of balloons, who greets every rumor of a sports-related injury with, “Did he displace his palate?”

Helmuth Von Bluecher, veterinarian to scores of California stars, concedes that the condition does tend to be over-diagnosed. As he explained it – slowly, using as few syllables as possible – the soft palate usually will move out of its normal position at the back of a horse’s throat when that horse is tired, scared, or otherwise stressed.

The soft palate, with the epiglottis, is part of the mechanical tissue that allows a horse to eat without getting food into his windpipe. Unlike humans, a horse cannot breathe through his mouth.

“It is the soft palate that separates the respiratory airway from the oral pharynx,” Von Bluecher said, slipping into his expensive medical vocabulary. “When the soft palate is out of position, or displaced, it comes over the epiglottis. Then you have the air going through the nostrils to the larynx or the trachea causing a turbulence – actually a fluttering and a gurgling noise – because the palate is not where it’s supposed to be.”

He also said it sounded worse than it was.

“The first thing I do is look for the underlying cause,” Von Bluecher said. “I remember a horse Charlie Whittingham trained, a brother to Flawlessly named Pricelessly, who always made this huge gurgling racket when he pulled up. He also had soundness and nervousness issues, and the sounder he got, the better he would go and the less you would hear that noise.”

Two weeks does not sound like a lot of time to keep a horse healthy enough to run in the Kentucky Derby – unless you’ve tried. Rest assured these next 14 days will be a psychological gantlet for the caretakers involved, and that there will be more contenders fall by the wayside before the man calls for riders up on May 7 at Churchill Downs.

There are any number of veterinary ills still to be tapped by Derby prospects. No one has yet been knocked out by a debilitating quarter crack, although Uncle Mo already may have staked out this ground after his grabbed quarter in the Wood. A bruised hoof is a worry, as is shipping fever, hives, colic and a mysterious high white count. Likewise there is room for a candidate to be off behind, off his feed, or off form, although the latter is rarely used as a reason to pass on the big dance. There is also time for a colt to be purchased by Sheikh Mohammed and hustled off to Dubai to train for the 2012 World Cup.

At the end of the Derby ordeal, when the dust has cleared on the morning of May 8, there may be high praise for Boys at Tosconova for being ahead of the curve. Indications are he could be back in training before too long with the rich second half of the season to enjoy.

It does not happen often, but a 3-year-old can become champion without brushing up against any part of the Triple Crown. Stagehand did it in 1938. So did By Jimminy six years later. Kelso was a champion 3-year-old of 1960 when he did not make his first appearance until the Belmont had been run.

Later came Wajima, a slow starter, and more recently Tiznow, who was still a maiden when the Kentucky Derby was run during his 2000 Horse of the Year campaign. Sometimes some things are just worth waiting for.