05/21/2001 12:00AM

Triple Crown chances fall into a gray area

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - No matter how silly or illogical the subject, some people simply will natter on about jinxes and other superstitious trash, won't they?

If you want a jinx, consider all the ink spilt over the gray horse jinx in the Kentucky Derby. This particular piece of newsroom voodoo grew out of the fact that no gray horse won the Kentucky Derby in its first 79 runnings.

More so than the illusions of favorites being ill-suited for Derby glory or of breeding theories applied to race handicapping, the inability of gray horses to win the Kentucky classic seems to have a practical explanation. In earlier decades, some breeders didn't especially like gray horses, and some don't today. Also, there were not very many good gray horses among the early Thoroughbreds, and this is important, because graying descends a gray parent to any offspring who inherit the genetic factor for graying. So, whether it was a case of gray lines not being very good or simply not having much luck, they did not have success in the Derby until 1954.

The first gray to win the Kentucky Derby was Determine, and he was a son of the chestnut stallion Alibhai and out of Mahmoud's gray daughter Koubis. As such, he was the grandson of the most important influence for grayness among American Thoroughbreds, the imported English stallion Mahmoud, who picked up the gray trait through his dam line going back to Mumtaz Mahal and her sire, The Tetrarch.

Mahmoud, a very light gray from an early age, was a very good-looking horse and was a very successful stallion for C.V. Whitney after importation to the United States. Among the recent horses of note tracing to Mahmoud in both color and lineage is 1994's Horse of the Year, Holy Bull. His maternal grandsire, Al Hattab, was a grandson of Mahmoud and was one of those rare grays who inherited the graying factor from both parents and as a result sired only gray offspring.

The second gray to win the Derby was Determine's son Decidedly. Since then, Dancer's Image finished first but was disqualified, and Spectacular Bid, Winning Colors, and Gato del Sol have taken home the roses. Two weeks ago, Monarchos added his name to that list of grays and now bids to add his name to the list of Preakness winners.

Given their difficulties with the Kentucky Derby, no gray has won the Triple Crown, although a pair have won two-thirds of the classics, and both of them won the Preakness. Right alongside Spectacular Bid as the best gray winners of the Preakness (and best loser of the Derby) is champion Native Dancer. He sired Dancer's Image, as well as Kauai King, a bay colt who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and is the broodmare sire of Northern Dancer.

Native Dancer and Spectacular Bid had similar patterns to their careers. Each was champion each year he raced, won two-thirds of the Triple Crown, and was an unbeaten Horse of the Year at 4.

Books on each of these exceptionally talented racehorses have recently been published by Eclipse Press, the book division of the Blood-Horse. As great as Spectacular Bid and Native Dancer were on the racecourse, they had dissimilar careers at stud. Only Native Dancer had the success expected of him, and he fathered the strongest American branch of Phalaris that doesn't descend through Nearco. Native Dancer and his tribe descend through Sickle, a full brother to Pharamond and half-brother to Hyperion.

None of these horses was gray. Native Dancer's color comes through his female family from The Tetrach's sire, Roi Herode, and his imported daughter La Grisette.

Grays pass on their color (or actually the lack of color) only to half of their offspring on average, and Native Dancer's best son at stud was Raise a Native, a chestnut so red that he reproduced a distinctively bright shade of the color.

One final peculiarity about this uncommon color is that Jockey Club registrations describe all grays currently as being "gray or roan." These aren't the same colors, and some authorities believe that there are no truly roan Thoroughbreds.

Roaning is a mixture of white hairs with colored hairs. True roans are born with the mixed coloration, and it stays with them all their lives.

Grays, on the other hand, are born their primary color, whether bay, brown, or chestnut, sometimes with a few white hairs and sometimes with none. Then in time, they lighten up, as the graying factor washes out their coat color. Spectacular Bid was a rather dark gray when he won their Kentucky Derby, just as Monarchos is now, but in time, Spectacular Bid has become almost white and is now a very attractive flea-bitten gray.