General Challenge, a gelding, won a key Derby prep at Santa Anita
It's been 70 years since a gelding won the Kentucky Derby--the
last was Clyde Van Dusen, a son of mighty Man o' War, in
1929--but chances are strong that another will do it before the
20th century gallops to a close. If last Saturday's Santa Anita
Derby is as sure a guide as it has been lately (the last two
winners of the Kentucky Derby tuned up for Louisville with a
strong showing at Santa Anita), an enormous, tightly strung
chestnut gelding named General Challenge will wear the blanket
of red roses at Churchill Downs on May 1.
In a performance as dominant as any seen in a Kentucky Derby
prep race in years, the General, who answers to the unlikely
nickname of Rodman, stalked the cantering pacemakers down the
backstretch, bounded to the front near the far turn and then
drew away from the field, his ears pricking to the roar of the
crowd, to win by 3 1/2 lengths over his Derby-bound stablemate,
Prime Timber. Indeed, the only performance as memorable as the
General's was the one turned in the same day by Bob Baffert, the
trainer of the first two finishers, as he danced down the
clubhouse steps toward the winner's circle, crowing all the way,
"This is a runnin' sonofabitch!"
The man had ample reason to exult. For the fourth year in a row
he was heading to Kentucky loaded with talent. Baffert has won
the last two runnings of the Derby--with Silver Charm in 1997
and Real Quiet last year--and he just missed scoring in 1996,
when another gelding, Cavonnier, finished second to Grindstone
by a nose. Baffert used the nine-furlong Santa Anita Derby as a
final prep for his horses in all three years; Cavonnier won the
race, and Silver Charm and Real Quiet ran second.
Baffert is looking to become the first trainer in history to
saddle three consecutive winners of the Kentucky Derby. "Every
once in a while I have to pull myself up, take a deep breath and
say, 'Hey, you could be a farmer,'" he says. "It's pretty
amazing to have all those good horses year after year."
General Challenge might be the most capable of them all. He
certainly is the tallest. Loping along with immense strides, all
legs and neck, he looks as if he belongs on the Serengeti Plain,
eating leaves off the tops of trees. "The biggest horse I've
ever trained," Baffert says. And one of the toughest. John
Mabee, who bred and owns the horse with his wife, Betty, says
General Challenge was gelded as a yearling as a way of calming
him down, but he still has his roguish moments. The General was
undefeated in three starts when jockey Gary Stevens encouraged
Baffert to send the horse to the Louisiana Derby in New Orleans
on March 14 for further seasoning. The General suffered a
meltdown on the airplane, lost all focus in the post parade and
never got into the hunt. He finished fifth.
"He suffered adversity for the first time," Baffert said before
the Santa Anita Derby. "He broke horribly, took dirt in his face
and then got tired. It was a good learning experience for him."
Out of that defeat he earned his nickname. "We sent him to New
Orleans, but he never showed up," says Baffert. "So we started
calling him Rodman. It fits him. Like Dennis, he's very
athletic, and he's all legs when he runs."
To sharpen the General's focus on Saturday, Baffert took
Stevens's advice and fitted the horse with blinkers. He was
unruly in the paddock, but he never turned a hair once he got
inside the gate, and he ran straight and hard and true. As
Stevens pulled him to a stop in front of the winner's
circle--"This horse has so much energy!" the rider called to
Baffert--a grinning John Mabee materialized nearby.
"Hey, Rodman showed up today!" Baffert yelled at Mabee. "I told
you I'd take you to the Kentucky Derby with this horse."
Baffert tapped the General's nose with his index finger. "You're
Number 1, Rodman," he said.
With four weeks and counting to May 1, he certainly is.
Arabs at Churchill Downs
DESERT STORM IN REVERSE
Having come to dominate the sport in England and much of the
Continent, the four Maktoum brothers of the oil-rich Arab
emirate of Dubai are taking aim at the plum of U.S. racing: the
Kentucky Derby. Indeed, on the yellow-brick road to this year's
classic at the Downs, nothing has stirred more interest and
speculation than the prospect of a contingent of Dubai-trained
horses skipping into Louisville. The presence of even one colt
would be unprecedented, and as many as four--Worldly Manner,
Aljabr, Prado's Landing and Comeonmom--could make the trip. No
horse has ever been saddled for the Derby after spending the
winter training in the deserts of the Middle East.
Prado's Landing has been flown to Keeneland to test the U.S.
waters in the Blue Grass Stakes on Saturday, but the Dubai colt
who will be watched most closely is Worldly Manner, one of the
leading 2-year-olds in the U.S. last year, when he won three of
four juvenile races culminating in a five-length triumph in the
Del Mar Futurity. The horse was bred and owned by John and Betty
Mabee and trained by Bob Baffert until Sheikh Mohammed bin
Rashid al Maktoum, looking for a strong player to lead his U.S.
invasion, bought Worldly Manner for $5 million and shipped him
to his state-of-the-art training center in Dubai. The colt will
go to the Derby having had only workouts and a couple of trial
races at Dubai's Nad al-Sheba racecourse against fields of
Maktoum-owned horses. On March 21, in the first of the trials,
the fluid Worldly Manner easily defeated a field of nine
stablemates at nine furlongs. (Aljabr finished second.)
Among those who saw this performance was trainer Richard
Mandella of the U.S. On the question of whether a horse prepared
by workouts and trials can compete against horses
battle-hardened in U.S. prep races, Mandella says, "Anybody who
believes the Dubai horses won't be ready had better think again.
Worldly Manner looked terrific. It was a race, a real horse race."
Americans beware. The Arabs are making an assault on the Triple
Jockey on the Skids
VALENZUELA HITS BOTTOM--AGAIN
Ten years ago this month, Patrick Valenzuela was riding as fast
and high as any jockey in the world. He had been a phenom at 17,
when he won his first Santa Anita Derby, on Codex, in 1980, and
over the years he had built a reputation as one of America's
finest riders--"As good a jock as I've ever ridden with," Gary
Stevens says. Moreover, he had succeeded despite troubles,
including drug abuse and a rash of unexplained absences, that
began to track him in the mid-'80s.
By the spring of '89, however, Valenzuela, still boyish at 26,
looked as surpassing as ever in the saddle. After steering
Sunday Silence to victory in the Santa Anita Derby, he won the
Kentucky Derby and Preakness on the little black colt, beating
Easy Goer both times, and he would have won the Triple Crown had
the Goer, under Pat Day, not run the race of his life to win the
Belmont Stakes. Never had Valenzuela's career looked more
promising. He was a natural athlete who rode with grace and
smarts, and he was the best "gate rider" in the sport: Under him
horses seemed to leave the barrier with their tails afire, and
they were often a length ahead by the time the others had
cleared the doors. All the trainers clamored for his services.
It's no wonder, then, that there was a great sense of sadness
among horsemen and horseplayers when, on Feb. 25, the
36-year-old Valenzuela, who quit racing two years ago, was
arrested and charged with robbing a cab driver of $150 at
gunpoint in the Los Angeles suburb of Rosemead. Valenzuela has
pleaded not guilty to the charge, and his lawyer, Donald
Calabria, insists that friends can place him elsewhere at the
time of the robbery. "He was misidentified," Calabria says.
Whatever happens, it surprised no one to learn that Valenzuela
appeared to have hit bottom again. In October 1989 he was
suspended for 60 days after testing positive for cocaine. By the
time he quit riding, he had won nearly 3,000 races--including
six Breeders' Cup events--and some $95 million in purses, but
his career had been periodically interrupted by no-shows and by
time spent in drug rehab. Ten years ago he had in his delicate
hands a career that could have earned him more than $1 million a
year. Today he is out on $40,000 bail raised by his family.
Last week trainer John Sullivan spoke for everyone in the racing
world when he said, "What a tragic waste of a life."
COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN General Challenge (far right), towered over his rivals--and buried them at the top of the stretch.