The most remarkable thing about Prairie Bayou's two-length victory in last Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes, at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., is that he may not be the best horse in owner John Ed Anthony's deep and powerful Loblolly Stable. Until recently, Anthony and trainer Tom Bohannan had thought that Dalhart, the probable favorite in this Saturday's Arkansas Derby, was their best hope to win the 119th Kentucky Derby on May 1. Now they say it's a coin flip between Prairie Bayou and Dalhart. They also have high hopes for Marked Tree, who'll run in Saturday's Wood Memorial, at Aqueduct in New York. When asked how he has come up with so many talented 3-year-olds in the same year, Anthony, tongue stuck firmly in cheek, said, "I know exactly what happened, but I'm not telling anybody."
If Dalhart is as impressive in his final Derby prep as Prairie Bayou was in the Blue Grass, Anthony may have the most formidable Derby entry since Citation and Coaltown ran one-two for Calumet Farm in 1948. Exploding out of a wall of horses in mid-stretch, Prairie Bayou surged to the lead under mild urging by jockey Mike Smith and then coasted to victory under a hand ride in the mediocre time of 1:49[3/5] for 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ miles. Because the depth and quality of the horses made the Blue Grass the toughest Derby prep to date, Prairie Bayou was declared the horse to beat at Churchill Downs.
Anthony, however, isn't taking anything for granted. Since 1984 he has entered five horses in four Kentucky Derbys, but he is still looking for his first win. His biggest disappointment came in 1987 when his Derby favorite, Demons Begone, suffered pulmonary bleeding early in the race and had to be pulled up. "I've had experience in the Kentucky Derby, and it's all been bad," said Anthony after the Blue Grass.
Still, the emergence of the Loblolly horses has injected a badly needed dose of excitement into what was becoming a rather drab Derby picture. Gilded Time, winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in October, was one of the first of last year's 2-year-old stars to be sidelined with an injury. He was followed by River Special, the Las Vegas winter-book favorite for the Kentucky Derby; Stuka, who was considered the top threat from owner Allen Paulson's vast stable; and It'sali'lknownfact, the second-place finisher in the Juvenile. Predictably, when these horses went down, there was a lot of press-box grousing about the quality of this year's 3-year-old crop.
Before the Blue Grass, Personal Hope had become the tepid Derby favorite by virtue of his victory two weeks ago at the Santa Anita Derby over Union City, from the D. Wayne Lukas stable. Personal Hope is trained by Mark Hennig, a top Lukas aide until he went out on his own last year. Backstretch tongues began wagging when the colt's owner, Lee Lewis, took Personal Hope away from Lukas and gave him to Hennig. Lukas, a former basketball coach who's always ready with a hoops analogy, said he "felt like a coach whose top assistant goes to a rival school and takes your best recruit with him." Both Personal Hope and Union City will run in the Kentucky Derby.
Personal Hope's win in the Santa Anita Derby was the main reason that Corby was a 8-5 favorite in the Blue Grass. On March 14 Corby, who had been Paulson's second-stringer behind the ill-fated Stuka, whipped Personal Hope by 2¾ lengths in the San Felipe at Santa Anita. "I think Corby's my best Derby hope yet," said Paulson before the Blue Grass.
But Paulson's Derby luck rivals that of Anthony. In 1991 Paulson had the probable favorite in Dinard, but the colt suffered a torn ligament behind his left knee after arriving in Louisville and Paulson had to scratch him from the race. Last year Paulson had the favorite in Arazi, the so-called superhorse based in France, who came all the way across the pond to finish a nifty eighth.
Unfortunately for Paulson, Corby turned in an Arazi-like performance in the Blue Grass, beating only two horses in the nine-horse field. Yet don't be surprised to see him get another chance at Churchill Downs.
Corby's poor showing had to make the passengers on the Personal Hope bandwagon feel a little queasy too. If Personal Hope couldn't handle Corby, and if Corby couldn't handle Prairie Bayou and the rest of the Blue Grass field...well, draw your own conclusions. Other than Personal Hope, the most likely candidate to stop the Loblolly steamroller is Bull Inthe Heather, an extremely big colt who followed his surprise victory in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream with a second-place finish in last Saturday's Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah.
At the beginning of the year, Prairie Bayou, a gelding, ranked so low in the Loblolly plans that he was banished to Aqueduct's winter meet, which is known as Siberia by some racing people. However, after knocking out impressive wins there in the Count Fleet and Whirlaway stakes, he was shipped to Kentucky and entered in the Jim Beam Stakes, which was run on March 27. He won by three quarters of a length under jockey Chris McCarron, substituting for Smith, who was aboard Dalhart in Dalhart's three-length victory the same day in the Rebel Stakes, at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas.
If Smith wins the Arkansas Derby with Dalhart, he and his agent, Steve Adika, will have to sit down with Anthony and Bohannan to decide which horse he should ride in the Kentucky Derby, Dalhart or Prairie Bayou. Under the terms of a unique agreement worked out last fall between Adika and Anthony, Smith has first call on all the Loblolly horses this spring. It could be a tough decision, and his choice will rest on which colt's running style is deemed best suited for this year's field in the 1¼-mile Kentucky race. Dalhart is an athletic colt who likes to stay close to the pace. Prairie Bayou likes to drop far off the pace—he was next to last in the early part of the Blue Grass—and come with a rush in the stretch.
"Every rider in the country would like to be in my spot," said Smith after the Blue Grass. "It's great to have two horses like this headed toward the Derby. I'd like to ride 'em both. I hope Dalhart runs big so it'll make the decision even tougher."
Prairie Bayou (far left), once lightly regarded, may be a favorite in the Run for the Roses.