04/15/2003 11:00PM

World famous for one day


LEXINGTON, Ky. - A point to remember about the Kentucky Derby: The unexpected is to be expected.

Outstanding horses such as Native Dancer, Damascus, and Bimelech were upset when they ran in the Derby. Horses with limited credentials such as Proud Clarion ($62.20), Charismatic ($64.60), and Gato del Sol ($44.40) lit up the tote board when they surprised.

One of the most unexpected of all Derby victories took place in 1970, and to this day letters and electronic queries wonder how Dust Commander did it and paid $32.60.

Dust Commander, a son of Bold Commander who raced for Robert Lehmann, was a relatively undistinguished 2-year-old of 1969. It took him five races to win his maiden and trainer Don Combs kept searching for answers as the season went on.

He made 14 starts in all and showed only occasional flashes of promise.

Dust Commander's two outings at Hialeah that winter were moderate and his two races at Gulfstream weren't quite as good. Combs brought him to Keeneland in the spring, shopped for a rider, and gave the mount to Mike Manganello.

A native of Hartford, Conn., Manganello was introduced to Art McGinley, sports editor of the Hartford Courant. They discussed racing and McGinley phoned the stewards at Narragansett Park on his behalf. The stewards brought him to veteran horseman Odie Cleland, who helped many riders at the start of their careers. Manganello had his first ride in November 1959 and proved an apt pupil.

Dust Commander, with Manganello up, opened the Keeneland meeting in a six-furlong sprint. He wasn't in the money but Manganello noted that he finished well. Sharpened by the sprint and full of himself, Dust Commander ran back at 1 1/16 miles, went to the lead for the first time, and won. On the basis of that victory he was entered in the Blue Grass Stakes but was dismissed at 35-1.

Corn off the Cob, the Fountain of Youth winner, helped set the early pace with Dixiana's Hard Work on a track turned sloppy by days of rain. Dust Commander sat off the pace, rallied gamely entering the stretch, and wore down Corn off the Cob to score by three-quarters of a length.

"I thought he had a good shot in the Derby," Manganello recalled the other day, "even though he paid $72.80 t0 win the Blue Grass. Most people attributed his victory to the off track but I thought he would have done as well on a fast track.

"He just got good at the right time. Of course some of the other horses might not have liked the sloppy track."

My Dad George, the Flamingo and Florida Derby winner, was the favorite for the Kentucky Derby while Dust Commander was sent off at 15-1 on a drying-out track that still had a few puddles. When Rancho Lejos angled in at the start, horses inside of him were shuffled back. Dust Commander was one of them and he was well back in the field of 17 during the early stages. He began to pick up horses after the first half-mile, moved off the rail to split horses entering the stretch, and was best in the drive, winning by five lengths.

"Winning the Derby was the greatest feeling in the world," Manganello said. "I began thinking about the Preakness but Dust Commander had a filled ankle the next morning and missed almost a week of training. He made a little move at Pimlico but then flattened out. He raced at 4 but never won another race after the Derby."

Manganello continued riding until 1991, retired with 2,591 winners, and became a steward at three tracks in Texas - Manor Downs, Bandera Downs, and Retama Park. He presently serves in the stewards stand at River Downs in Ohio and Hoosier Park in Indiana, and on Derby Day his thoughts drift back to the chance of a lifetime and a colt who defied the odds to win the greatest race of them all.