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High-octane hopes at Derby

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© St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2001

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Petroleum princes arrive for the Kentucky Derby and gasoline prices immediately zoom. Honest to octane, Thursday's unleaded average was $1.55 at Louisville pumps but by Friday morning the squeeze cost $1.86.

What might Middle East impact become by late this afternoon, at rosy and roaring conclusion of the Kentucky Derby, the world's greatest exam of horsepower?

The field:
Entries and post positions

The silks:
Race colors

"To win the Kentucky Derby," said Prince Ahmed Salman, rich dude from Saudi Arabia, "is the biggest ambition of my life." After 20 years of investing oil megamillions in pursuit of a Louisville strike, Prince Moneybags owns 9-5 favorite Point Given.

Prince Salman stalks horse racing like Dick Vitale follows basketball. He's a big N.C., baby! Nut case. "My drive for 20 years has been to take the Kentucky Derby," he said. I assume P.S. meant win the race, not buy it. "I want this to be at the end of my rainbow."

Persian Gulf poetry.

Back at his sandy Saudi ranch, P.S. is dish-hooked into ESPN, CNN, Daily Racing Form and TVG, a new cable venture that aims to be to the thoroughbred game what Golf Channel is to the sport of Tiger Woods.

Because he's loaded, the prince makes a 20-hour trip from Riyadh on his jet, rents a $1,500-a-night Derby 127 hotel suite or two, then flits around Louisville in a loaded limo.

Caring not about gas prices.

P.S. has high-speed competition, even from the Middle East, with an ever-massive effort by Godolphin Racing, a United Arab Emirates operation owned by brothers Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid al Maktoum and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum. Their stab at this Derby is 15-1 shot Express Tour.

So much fuel for the Derby fire.

There is, of course, a flood of whopper American wealth going after this Derby, underwriting a posse of unusually strong horses. Sixteen elegant animals are primed to challenge Point Given in a mile-and-a-quarter quest for immortality.

Prince Salman hired the hottest of trainers, silver-haired and silver-tongued Bob Baffert, a California dynamo who also handles one of Point Given's most formidable Derby rivals, Congaree, owned by Texas energy tycoons Robert and Janice McNair.

"This may be the most talent-loaded Derby I've seen," Baffert said. "My colts both have solid chances, but it's hardly a two-horse race. What a load! If we were talking wine, the term vintage would come to mind. Should be a memorable Derby. Could be a captivating Triple Crown year."

Point Given has a fabulous look. Bigger than most colts, with a notable thunderous sound as the classy chestnut gallops the Downs. Hoofbeats of Secretariat?

It is, however, my habit, probably one of my many weaknesses, to search for horses that might whip the odds-board big fellow on the first Saturday in May.

Last year's winner, Fusaichi Pegasus, was the first Derby favorite to rule since Spectacular Bid in 1979. Congaree has a real chance to outrun Point Given and break a princely heart.

My graying hair and high-mileage heart will cause me to pull for Millennium Wind, because his jockey is 54-year-old Panamanian comeback kid Laffit Pincay, the biggest winner ever (9,118 races) but champion of just one Derby (with Swale in 1984).

Millennium Wind has stout speed but likely will be outblistered from the gates by Balto Star and Keats. Point Given comes from the far outside post, No. 17, probably settling into mid-pack traffic by the first turn.

It's a long, long way home.

"I've always considered myself an underdog who beat the odds," said Bobby Hurley, the old Duke basketball point guard who triggered the Blue Devils to two national championships. Although never an NBA wizard, Hurley nonetheless made stacks of cash, enough to allow him ownership of 20-1 shot Songandaprayer.

"Look at me, a kid from New Jersey who learned to dribble and shoot a bit, now walking with Middle East oil barons and other giants of global business," Hurley said. "Only in America, huh?"

Or maybe Saudi or U.A.E.

Mostly likely, the 11/4 miles is too long a chase for Hurley's steed. Speaking of basketball, it would also be a stunner if University of Louisville coach Rick Pitino got a heroic rebound from his Derby hope, A?P Valentine, who was such a dud in the Blue Grass prep at Keeneland.

If you've got two bucks to torch, making something of a lottery bet, try outsiders Invisible Ink, Fifty Stars or Jamaican Rum. Stranger horses have challenged in the Derby and not impossible that one could add loads of voltage to the exacta lights.

By the time Churchill Downs' long, excruciating stretch comes into view of the front-runners, my guess is it'll be Point Given scorching from fourth or fifth as 150,000 erupt with personal and financial interests.

But, I'm guessing, against all odds, the P.S. darling will not have quite the fuel -- ho! ho! -- to outrun Baffert's junior varsity, Congaree, with Dollar Bill finishing third. Unless, of course, Monarchos steals it.

That's why it's called gambling.

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