JUST WHEN it seemed the Kentucky Derby picture was hopelessly
murky, hopelessly clouded with mediocrities, a sleek colt named
Unbridled's Song came charging off the turn for home in the
Florida Derby last Saturday and literally stepped from the
afternoon shadows to announce what many had suspected but no one
really knew: He is the fastest 3-year-old of the moment and the
favorite to win the roses at Churchill Downs on May 4.
It all became clear with startling suddenness in the last three
furlongs of the nine-furlong race. Unbridled's Song swept past
the 3/4 pole in a sizzling 1:09 4/5, a head in front of the
tiring Appealing Skier. He left that colt and seven others
reeling in his wake as he bounded through the mile in a fiery
1:34 3/5, opening up a four-length lead at mid-stretch. In the
end, under a hand ride from jockey Mike Smith, the Song coasted
home to win by almost six in a very swift 1:47 4/5.
"Exceptional," declared Mark Hopkins, a veteran speed
handicapper for the Daily Racing Form. Hopkins calculates Beyer
speed figures--numerical expressions of how fast a horse really
ran with the speed of the racing surface factored in. Hours
after the Florida Derby, Hopkins announced that Unbridled's Song
had run a Beyer figure of 114, some six points higher, or four
lengths faster, than the average Kentucky Derby winner over the
last five years. "This is probably the best pure speed figure
run in the Florida Derby since Spectacular Bid [in 1979]," says
Hopkins. "If Unbridled's Song runs like this on the first
Saturday in May, he will win the Kentucky Derby."
If he does, he will make as much history as money. Last October,
in his finest hour as a 2-year-old, Unbridled's Song raced
through the mud at Belmont Park to win the Breeders' Cup
Juvenile by a neck over Hennessy. Since the Breeders' Cup series
began in 1984, none of its 11 Juvenile winners has gone on to
win the Derby. Unbridled's Song could well be the first. With
his long legs, supple physique and stylish dab of white on his
nose, he would certainly cut a handsome figure in the winner's
circle at Churchill Downs--if they could get him to stand still.
Oh, yes. He's a nervous, headstrong colt who has been known to
pitch a fit among paddock crowds, rearing and spinning on his
hind legs and disrupting post parades. His trainer, James
Ryerson, so feared that Unbridled's Song might make a scene last
Saturday that he had his beefy New York assistant, Jimmy
Homewood, fly in for the sole purpose of walking the colt from
the barn to the paddock before the race. By the time the colt
had dragged Homewood into the paddock, poor Homewood's cheeks
were a candy pink and he had broken a sweat, but Unbridled's
Song threw no notable tantrums, and he paraded to the post like
"He wasn't an angel today," Ryerson said after the race, "but
he's beginning to settle down. He's got all the ability in the
world--if the nerves don't overcome the ability. He's a real good
People have been saying such things about him for more than a
year. When Ernie Paragallo, who owns a computer software
business on Long Island, bought Unbridled's Song for $200,000 at
the Saratoga yearling sales in August 1994, he was aiming to
pinhook him--that is, to resell him and make a profit. Only six
months later the colt was up for bid at a
2-year-olds-in-training sale in California and showed such an
extraordinary turn of foot in his workouts that he had the most
blase of horsemen doing double takes. He was scorching 220 yards
in 10 1/5 seconds, which is about as fast as a horse can run.
When a Japanese horseman, Hiroshi Fujita, bid $1.4 million for
the colt, potentially the highest price ever paid for a baby in
training, Paragallo was ambivalent, though he stood to make a
$1.2 million profit. "I was ecstatic about the price," he
recalls. "But he was a once-in-a-lifetime horse."
Here the fates intervened. Paragallo agreed to the deal, but
when X-rays indicated a chip in the colt's left front ankle,
Fujita backed out. Paragallo interpreted that as an omen not to
sell and waved off Fujita's attempt to renegotiate. "Will you
think about a reduction in price?" Fujita's representative
asked. "The horse has a problem."
"I'll think about nothing," Paragallo said. "He's not for sale."
So Paragallo held on to the colt, who acquired a reputation as
the fastest 2-year-old in America who had never run a race. He
worked everywhere, blowing around ovals faster than most horses
race, but small problems kept him from the post until last Aug.
26 at Saratoga, when he panfried a field of maidens to win by
8 1/2 lengths. He opened up six lengths on the field in the Moet
Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park on Oct. 7 but tired badly to
finish fourth, beaten 5 1/4 lengths by Maria's Mon. Three weeks
later he won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
Four hours before the Florida Derby, Ryerson knew that
Unbridled's Song, who had lost his first two starts as a
3-year-old, was facing the biggest race in his life. There could
be no more excuses. Was this just another Breeders' Cup Juvenile
winner who would expose himself as the distances stretched out?
Ryerson paced nervously. "You haven't seen the best of this
horse yet," he said.
The best came when Smith nudged Unbridled's Song and he sailed,
like a windsurfer, down the stretch in front by two. By three,
four, five, almost six. He has one more test, the Wood Memorial
at Aqueduct on April 13, before heading for the Downs.
No one feels more blessed than Paragallo. He sold the horse for
$1.4 million, then got him back. Today he has the Kentucky Derby
favorite, a gunmetal roan who is a son of the '90 Derby winner,
Unbridled, and who has far more natural speed than his sire.
Paragallo has grabbed the bit, too. "I don't care who's on the
bandwagon," he says. "I know who's got the best horse."
For the moment, so do we all.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES [Mike Smith riding Unbridled's Song in Florida Derby]