1991: Strike the Gold

Sunday, May 05, 1991



By Christy McIntyre and Maryjean Wall, Herald-Leader Staff Writers
A lone voice struggled to rise above the noise that swelled to a deafening roar as Strike the Gold pulled ahead in the 117th Kentucky Derby.
It was trainer Nick Zito, screaming himself desperately hoarse in the stands as he called to his colt again and again with all the conviction of the believer he has always been.  “Show me the way! Show me the way! Show me the way!” Zito shouted it at least eight times as Strike the Gold fought his way to the front and won by 1 3/4 lengths over Best Pal and Mane Minister in a mile and a quarter timed in 2:03.
But Strike the Gold needed no one to show him the way. Tenth on the backstretch, six lengths off the pace, he looped horses around the far turn and came six wide at the top of the stretch to prove Zito right.
Strike the Gold, bred at Calumet Farm, became the second son of Alydar to win the Derby, following Alysheba in 1987.
Alydar, who died last Nov. 15 — the day Strike the Gold won his first race — finished a close second to Affirmed in the 1978 Triple Crown races. But Strike the Gold was suspect to go the Derby distance because he lacked the proper “dosage,” a numerical evaluation of the distance capabilities in a horse’s pedigree. Strike the Gold’s Dosage Index was a lofty 9.00, and no horse with a Dosage higher than 4.00 had won the Derby going back to 1929.
Dosage is devoutly espoused by some but not universally accepted. And Strike the Gold made short work of the dosage theory yesterday — rewarding Zito and all those who believed in the colt instead of the dosage numbers, paying $11.60, $6.20 and $5.40.Zito had begun to look like one of Strike the Gold’s last few friends in the final days before the race, after a ho-hum workout in :51 left many in doubt about the colt’s readiness.
So he did not go to post the favorite, as it looked he might be three weeks ago after beating champion Fly So Free in the Blue Grass Stakes. For the Derby, Strike the Gold was no more than the third choice, 9-2, in the field of 16 3-year-olds.
But Zito, who had bet a few dollars on his colt last January in the future books, was holding tight to his tickets. The colt’s owners — B. Giles Brophy, William J. Condren and Joseph M. Cornacchia — were holding tight to their hopes.
“I was uptight because I didn’t want anybody to discredit the horse,” Zito said. “If they watched that work Friday (five furlongs in 1:00 a week before the Derby) they’d have bet the ranch,” the trainer told the doubters.  “He went the last quarter (in that workout) in :22.”
He said he was never alarmed by the subsequent, slower work three days before the Derby. “He worked slow before the Blue Grass, too,” Zito said. “It’s more like an open (cruising) gallop. We don’t blow him out before a race.”
Jockey Chris Antley wasn’t worried either.
“I didn’t think it was a problem,” said Antley, 25, who won his first Kentucky Derby. “Mr. Zito knew what he needed.”
But it was hard to know what to expect in the race. The last three weeks leading up to the Derby had not left a clear picture, for a clear-cut favorite had never emerged.
First, Fly So Free’s string of five graded stakes victories was snapped by Strike the Gold in the Blue Grass Stakes. Then Dinard, the West Coast standout, dropped out of the Derby after sustaining a leg injury.
Suddenly it became almost impossible to pick a favorite. Hansel, winner of the Jim Beam Stakes five weeks ago, looked as if he might be approaching the top of his game. Best Pal had lost twice to Dinard — but he outtrained them all during Derby week. Strike the Gold was still a hot prospect. And Fly So Free still had his backers, who thought his race in the Blue Grass was merely a fluke.
Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia picked Fly So Free as morning line favorite, but said he had never seen four Derby colts so closely bunched in the 16 years he has made the odds. However, the public’s choice was Hansel, whose post time odds were 5-2.
Second choice was Fly So Free at 3-1, followed by Strike the Gold at 9-2 and Best Pal at 5-1. The crowd of 135,554, fifth largest in Derby history, bet the second-highest amount ever wagered on a Derby, $15,225,227. It was left to the horses to sort it out.
As expected, Sea Cadet, the bobtailed colt, went to the front, with long shot Forty Something and Corporate Report in close pursuit the first time past the stands. Fly So Free, who broke from the inside post position, was fourth, and Hansel sixth, fewer than three lengths behind the leader.
Strike the Gold was 11th after the first quarter, 10 lengths back after a quarter in :23 1/5.
“Today I didn’t want too many traffic problems,” Antley said. “And hopefully he would run aggressively enough to stay near the field without dropping 40 lengths out of it.
“He did that today, and way down the backside he started running in the dirt and started picking up horses on his own.”
Sea Cadet led Forty Something by a half-length after a half-mile in :46 2/5, followed by Corporate Report and Fly So Free. Hansel was still sixth, but jockey Jerry Bailey wasn’t happy with the way his colt was running.
“I had a feeling he was in trouble on the backstretch,” Bailey said. “He wasn’t pulling the way he usually does. He was uncomfortable, due to what I don’t know.”
Sea Cadet and Forty Something ran as a team through three-quarters in 1:11 1/5, while Strike the Gold was 10th, six lengths back. He had Happy Jazz Band to his left and Quintana to his right when Antley decided it was time to make a move.
Then Antley told Strike the Gold it was time to go and sent him directly to the outside. Suddenly, Quintana checked, for there was little racing room between Strike the Gold and Another Review, to Quintana’s right.
Meanwhile, Mane Minister, an 80-1 long shot, was running like a real surprise, coming from 10th and closing ground rapidly to gain fifth and move into contention. Another long shot, Lost Mountain, made a big move on the inside approaching the far turn, but was forced into the rail by Fly So Free and shuffled back.
Strike the Gold was moving steadily closer to the front, and the action was heating up on all fronts. Forty Something dropped back as Hansel was making a move on the outside. Corporate Report had gained second, Fly So Free was right behind him and Mane Minister was staying right in there with them.
Yet Antley knew he was the one sitting in the catbird seat.
“Midway around the turn I knew I had it won, even when I was three or four lengths behind,” Antley said. “I think I was already grinning at the quarter pole.”
Sea Cadet still led after a mile. But he was hotly pursued by Fly So Free, Corporate Report, Hansel, Mane Minister and Strike the Gold.
Then they turned for home, and Strike the Gold was widest of all as the six colts rounded the bend nearly abreast into the stretch. But Antley hadn’t even asked Strike the Gold to begin his fullest run.
“At the quarter I saw one coming on the inside,” Antley said. It was Best Pal, who had worked his way up from eighth down the backstretch.
Best Pal tried to get through the middle of the pack first, then was dropped to the inside when the first plan looked hopeless. He burst through on the rail — and into the horse race — by the time they reached the eighth pole.
“When I shot through I thought I was a winner,” said Gary Stevens, who rode Best Pal.
But Antley countered, “I hadn’t even set mine down yet.”
The two pulled ahead of the pack, and as they pulled closer to home Strike the Gold lugged out toward the middle of the track. Antley said it was due to his left-handed whipping.
But Strike the Gold didn’t need the whip anymore as he drew away from Best Pal deeper in the stretch and his victory seemed secure. Antley hand-rode him to the wire, and it was clear he was the best as he finished all alone.
It was 1 3/4 lengths back to Best Pal, and another 1 3/4 lengths back to Mane Minister, who was only a head in front of long shot Green Alligator. Three-quarters of a length behind came Fly So Free, followed by Quintana, Paulrus, Sea Cadet, Corporate Report, Hansel, Happy Jazz Band, Lost Mountain, Another Review, Alydavid, Wilder Than Ever and Forty Something.

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