05/06/2004 11:00PM

Sentimental story line beats sound handicapping


LEXINGTON, KY. - I am a reasonable man. Most of the time, I believe in science over superstition. I emphasized pace figures, speed figures, improving form, and betting value while handicapping the Kentucky Derby. In most races, those tools are sufficient. But the Kentucky Derby is different. There is another angle that has become difficult to ignore. I call it the Mrs. Genter Factor. It is a mystical belief that the racing gods are kind and soft-hearted when it comes to handing out Derby wins. They are big on sympathy, especially when nice people are involved. They tend to favor the elderly and the frail. If you fit into both categories, you have an almost unbeatable edge.

This trend, which has been in force for decades, is best illustrated by the 1990 Derby. When trainer Carl Nafzger described the stretch run of the race for owner Frances Genter during Unbridled's victory, then embraced her, it was a sweet, touching moment. It was also a tremendous betting opportunity. A sweet, frail, elderly woman with poor eyesight is like money in the bank in the Kentucky Derby.

Think back to some of the other Derby winners over the last 20 years, and note how many of the owners or trainers were getting up there in years and venerated by most in racing: Woody Stephens (Swale), Charlie Whittingham (Ferdinand and Sunday Silence), Paul Mellon and Mack Miller (Sea Hero), W. T. Young (Grindstone), Bob and Beverly Lewis (Silver Charm and Charismatic). Bob Baffert is relatively young, but his white hair has fooled the racing gods repeatedly.

If there was ever a likely Derby winner based on the Mrs. Genter Factor, it was Smarty Jones. This is a horse who came into the Derby undefeated in six starts. He won those races by a combined total of 33 1/4 lengths. He had earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 105 or higher in half of his lifetime starts, with a career-best 108. Clearly, this horse was good enough to win the Derby on his own, with no help from the racing gods. But how could they not help? No racing god could live with himself if he denied 77-year-old owner Roy Chapman, a frail, but enthusiastic racing fan, a trip to the winner's circle. The $10.20 win payoff was a license to print money.

It is very unlikely that I will ever own a horse anywhere near as talented as Smarty Jones. The chances are even more remote that I will ever own a Kentucky Derby winner. But that won't stop me from trying. I have targeted the 2043 Derby. I will be in my 80's. Until then, I will be on my best behavior every minute of every day, with the hope that I can impress the racing gods with my kind, gentle, caring nature. They like that.