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Original Issue

Don't Bet the Ranch on Arazi

Seeing is believing, and it says here that Arazi will have to show he can do it on Derby Day

Even though the Kentucky derby won't be run until May 2, the outcome of this year's race has already been decided. The winner will be Arazi, the handsome France-based colt who's such a lead-pipe, mortal-lock, mortgage-the-farm cinch that he's being widely touted as the next (take your pick) Man o' War, Citation or Secretariat. Why, Arazi's co-owners, American airplane magnate Allen Paulson and United Arab Emirates defense minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum of Dubai, have been arguing about what to do with the colt after he wins the Derby. Paulson wants to give Arazi a shot at becoming the 12th winner of the Triple Crown, but the sheikh favors going after an unprecedented Derby Double—victories in both the Kentucky Derby and the race after which it was modeled, the Epsom Derby in England.

Well, I'm sorry, but I'm not buying it. Not yet, anyway. Arazi may turn out to be the wonder horse his fans, including my SI colleague William Nack (page 30), believe him to be, but he still has to prove it to me on Derby Day. I agree with trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who says the Kentucky Derby is "the hardest race in the world to win." Lukas has only one winner. Winning Colors in 1988, to show for the 19 horses he has saddled for the Derby since '81. So he knows all too well what kinds of strange things can happen when 3-year-old horses are asked to run 1¼ miles for the first time in their lives, when jockeys give their all in the race each of them most wants to win and when the Derby mystique jumps up and grabs both horses and riders by the throat as the field hits the top of the long, tiring Churchill Downs stretch.

And so, in my role as neigh-saver, I offer these five examples of thoroughbreds who once pulled the same sort of hysterical bandwagon that is now hitched to Arazi but who met their comeuppances on Derby Day:

•In 1953 unbeaten Native Dancer was the 7-10 favorite in a field of 11, but he was roughed up in the first turn, fell back and came up a head short of catching Dark Star at the wire. It was to be Native Dancer's only defeat in 22 career starts.

•The 1967 Derby was run on a track so muddy that 2-1 favorite Damascus bogged down in midstretch and staggered home third, four lengths behind the victorious Proud Clarion, a 30-1 shot. It was easily the dullest race of Damascus's career, and he came back to win both the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes on his way to Horse of the Year honors.

•In 1976 Honest Pleasure was considered to be such a superhorse that TIME magazine was prepared to run a cover story on him the week after he won the Derby. The article was canned after Honest Pleasure, whose 2-5 odds made him the shortest-priced favorite since the entry of Citation and Coaltown in '48, came in second, a length behind Bold Forbes.

•Devil's Bag, the undefeated 2-year-old champion of 1983, looked so sensational that one New York turf writer began keeping a diary in anticipation of writing a book on racing's next superhorse. But Devil's Bag finished a dull fourth in the Flamingo Stakes, was unimpressive in winning two other Derby preps and wasn't even entered in the Derby. A leg injury forced his retirement soon alter.

•The New York media had its hype machine going full blast in 1989 on behalf of a talented East Coast horse, Easy Goer. Derby bettors bought it, too, sending off the entry of Easy Goer and stablemate Awe Inspiring as the 4-5 favorite. However, the going wasn't so easy for the big colt on a track left sticky by overnight rains, and Easy Goer finished second, 2½ lengths behind Sunday Silence.

Even Shug McGaughey, who as Easy Goer's trainer experienced firsthand the pressure and attention that comes with handling the overwhelming Derby favorite, has been amazed by the furor surrounding Arazi. "I think the Racing Form would go out of business if something happened to Arazi," McGaughey said last week. "Every day it's Arazi this, Arazi that."

Arazi's performance in winning last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs was so brilliant that it has skewed handicapping for the Derby, in addition to imbuing his trainer, Francois Boutin, with a confidence that borders on arrogance. But there's no guarantee, no matter what Arazi's star-struck followers might think, that he will be able to duplicate that masterpiece. In fact, I'm betting that because of Boutin's overconfidence, Arazi will have too much to overcome in the Kentucky Derby: I don't think he's ready to handle the Derby distance off only one prep race, a mile on the grass on April 7 in France that was little more than a glorified workout; I don't think Boutin is wise to wait until a week before the Derby to ship Arazi to Louisville, leaving precious little room for error or time to acclimate the colt: and I also think Arazi could have traffic problems in what figures to be at least an 18-horse field.

I see the Derby unfolding this way: Arazi, unable to find running room through the early going, finally breaks free and surges to the lead at the top of the stretch. He looks like he's going to be the winner for a few moments, but then—sacrè bleu!—here comes A.P. Indy, head lowered and closing ground with every stride, to nose out the tiring Arazi at the wire. I also look for Technology and the longshot Conte Di Savoya to be right there with them. Nevertheless, if Arazi pulls it off, I'll be the first to tip my (dunce) cap to him. But I have so much respect for the Kentucky Derby and what it takes to win it that I think it's less foolish to pick against Arazi than to think the outcome is a foregone conclusion.