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Favorite's Curse Shadows `Pegasus'

Pegasus working at Churchill Downs.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Maybe a Hall of Fame trainer can break the Kentucky Derby favorite's curse.

Neil Drysdale was elected to thoroughbred racing's Hall of Fame on Tuesday, and now faces the unenviable task of trying to win Saturday's Derby with favored Fusaichi Pegasus.

If the $4 million colt can do it, the victory would end a 21-year streak of beaten favorites; the last favorite to win the Derby was Spectacular Bid in 1979.

But on Derby day, anything can happen when 20 of the best 3-year-olds enter the starting gate to race a grueling 1 1/4 miles at Churchill Downs. Last year, 31-1 shot Charismatic broke through for the win, and in '95 it was 25-1 shot Thunder Gulch.

``It's a wildly run race,'' Cot Campbell of Dogwood Stable, which sends out Trippi and Impeachment in the Derby, said Tuesday. ``There's the jockeys' nerves, the horses' nerves, everybody's nerves. There's the distance, and there's the knowledge that the form of these horses has not yet been crystalized.

``Put that all together and many times you never even have a true favorite.''

Drysdale, the witty 52-year-old Englishman, doesn't seem bothered by the curse, even though his '92 Derby favorite A.P. Indy was scratched the morning of the race with a bruised foot.

``He's continuing to strengthen,'' Drysdale said of Fusaichi Pegasus, winner of four in a row, including a dominating win in the Wood Memorial. ``I've been watching him work and he looks good going over the ground. I'm happy to see him in good condition.''

Mike Smith, who gets the call on long shot Globalize, is familiar with favorite failure in the Derby. He rode three favorites and finished second on Prairie Bayou in '93, 12th on Holy Bull in '94 and fifth with Unbridled's Song in '96.

``It's hard to get a handle on it, but the best horse doesn't always win,'' Smith said. ``In Fusaichi Pegasus, you know he has the ability. But whether he has the stamina and mind for it, you don't know.''

Smith is still amazed at Holy Bull's effort, especially because the gray came into the race off dominating wins in the Florida Derby and Blue Grass Stakes. After the Derby, he went on to become Horse of the Year.

``He just didn't run a lick in the Derby,'' Smith said. ``He was dull during the week, dull in the post parade, didn't leave the gate, and just went through the motions. He probably was the best horse going in, but there are a lot of things that can go wrong.''

There are dozens of explanations why favorites aren't winning the Derby: new surroundings, the distance, strange track surface, full 20-horse fields, media-frenzy, bad betting.

There's also the public's penchant for betting horses coupled in the wagering: 1983 winner Sunny's Halo probably would have been favored over the entry of Marfa, Balboa Native and Total Departure.

Bob Baffert subscribes to the bad-betting theory. He saddled the last two Derby favorites, the entry of Excellent Meeting and General Challenge in '99; and Indian Charlie in '98. Baffert's Real Quiet won in '98 as the fifth choice in the betting.

``Indian Charlie was the favorite, but I knew Real Quiet was doing better than any of them leading up to the race,'' said Baffert, who sends out Captain Steve on Saturday. ``I think the media makes them favorites. It has a lot to do with it. You guys are bad handicappers.''

Chris McCarron, who will be aboard top contender The Deputy, says experience counts when it comes to pulling off a clean trip.

``The favorite has to run the best race of his career because there's so much traffic, everyone's head is down and we're riding as hard as we can,'' McCarron, a two-time Derby winner, said. ``Even the best horse still needs a clean trip to get it done, and if you've done it before you have a better idea of what's going on.''

The Deputy, winner of the Santa Anita Derby, is trained by Jenine Sahadi, looking to become the first woman to train a Derby winner.

Todd Pletcher will saddle four horses in his first Derby, and says ``a lot of people betting on this race usually don't bet on races. They go by what they read.

``Look at Fusaichi Pegasus. He's never run at Churchill Downs, but based on past performance he's the favorite. He did take his race to New York and ran big, and maybe he can do it here, too. We'll just have to see.''

Pletcher trains undefeated Trippi and Impeachment for Campbell, and also will send out Blue Grass runner-up More Than Ready and Arkansas Derby winner Graeme Hall.

Snuck In was pulled out of Derby consideration after a subpar workout Tuesday morning. The Arkansas Derby runner-up will be pointed to the Preakness on May 20. The decision clears the way for China Visit, owned by Godolphin Racing, to join the field.

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