LOUISVILLE - Take it straight from the horse's mouth: Dollar Bill, the sentimental hometown favorite, is poised to make a good showing in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs tomorrow.
“I'm ready, I'm fit, but not tired. My energy level is high, and I don't have a sore spot on my body,” Dollar Bill says in the latest entry on his personal Web site.
That's right, colt Dollar Bill has his own Web site - www.dollarbill.ws - complete with an animation that shows him having a great big horse laugh.
Actually, he has a ghost writer - his owner, Gary West of Omaha, Neb. According to trainer Dallas Stewart, West and his wife, Mary, thought an electronic diary of Dollar Bill's march to Louisville would be fun for fans. It has been.
But the latest missive, posted Tuesday, had its serious side. Dollar Bill said he wouldn't write anymore until after the race because, “I'm in serious lockdown.”
The tone of the message was befitting of the respect Dollar Bill is getting from the experts.
Churchill oddsmaker Mike Battaglia posted him the sixth choice at 10-1 on the morning line behind 4-to-5 Point Given. Many handicappers have indicated he's one horse they won't leave out of their exacta or trifecta boxes.
It's an interesting development, considering that Dollar Bill has lost his past two races by a combined 91/2 lengths.
The consensus is that the colt Dollar Bill has been suffering a chronic case of bad racing luck.
Two races ago, as the Louisiana Derby favorite, he ran up on the heels of another horse, stumbled and nearly fell to his knees. With the help of jockey Pat Day, he collected himself and began running again - something that is very difficult for a horse to do. He finished fourth, losing by just 21/2 lengths to winner Fifty Stars.
His trouble in the Blue Grass Stakes April 1 at Keeneland began right in the gate. A horse beside him got fractious, and the startled Dollar Bill hit his nose on the gate. Also, he was lightly bumped at the start by Bonnie Scot. Though Dollar Bill was not badly hurt, Stewart figured he was briefly out of kilter.
It certainly looked like it during the early part of the race as he loped alone in sixth place. But as the wire got closer, he made a big late move to finish third, albeit seven lengths behind winner Millennium Wind.
“At the quarter pole I thought he had no shot,” Stewart said. “At the eighth-mile pole I thought he had no shot. Then, after he went from inside to outside, he began picking up horses and I thought he could hit the board. He only got beat for second by 13/4 lengths.”
Horse racing is one sport in which owners, trainers and jockeys always look for the positive. It's the only way to maintain sanity in a sport that's full of many more losses than victories.
In the case of these two losses, Stewart saw Dollar Bill had an asset that cannot be measured by size or speed - heart.
“Usually something works out,” Stewart said. “He's a fighter. He showed he can get knocked out and get back in there. It's one of those things. You just have to be patient, and the owners have been great about it.”
Stewart and jockey Day definitely have a good feeling about their colt's chance against odds-on favorite Point Given and the other 15 entries.
“Pat Day said he has a good feeling about the horse,” Stewart said. “If he has a good feeling, I have a good feeling.”
Both were pleased that they were able to pick the No. 10 post in the football draft-style Derby draw.
“Our No. 1 pick was post 7, sort of in the middle of the field,” Day said. “The 10 is fine, given the horses around us and given where the speed drew. I think it is going to work out fine.”
Apparently Dollar Bill does, too. On his Web site, he wrote, “Win or lose, May the 5th is gonna be a day I'll remember forever.”
DEVIL OF A CHOICE: Rick Pitino is glad it's Bobby Hurley - not Christian Laettner - who also owns a Kentucky Derby horse.
Pitino coached Kentucky and Hurley played for Duke when Laettner's last-second shot sank the Wildcats in the 1992 East Regional final.
Pitino's A P Valentine and Hurley's Songandaprayer are in tomorrow's 17-horse field.
“As long as Christian Laettner didn't buy that horse, I'm all for it,” the Louisville coach said yesterday. “He's not allowed to set foot in this state.”
The Nick Zito-trained A P Valentine is Pitino's second Derby entry. Halory Hunter, also trained by Zito, finished fourth in 1998.
“This is a lot different than the horse we had last time,” Pitino said. “Halory Hunter was a hard-knocking little horse that tried his guts out. This horse is very talented and royally bred.”
Zito hasn't won the Derby since 1994 with Go For Gin. Pitino joked that he's gained more confidence in Zito since the trainer described the horse as “mad, furious and upset” after his fifth-place finish in the Blue Grass April 14.
“That's how good my trainer is,” Pitino said. “(Bob) Baffert's out there and he's a very talented trainer with talented horses, but he doesn't have the gift our trainer has. Our trainer is communicating with our horse one-on-one.”
Pitino resigned as coach of the Boston Celtics in January after 31/2 disappointing seasons. His former Celtic Pride Stable now is called the Ol' Memorial Stable, a reference to a golf course in Tampa, Fla.
Pitino has had to secure about 400 Derby tickets and been swarmed by media all week. But the pressures of owning a horse don't compare to those that come with coaching a team, he said.
“Basketball is my passion, my vocation,” Pitino said. “I'm in the horse business to have fun. It's Nick's job to worry, to get nauseous each night, to not get sleep - all the things that go with being a horse trainer or a coach.”
SOPRANO CONNECTION: Dominic Chianese, who plays Uncle Junior on HBO's The Sopranos, showed up on Churchill's backside yesterday morning, but that doesn't mean he's a horse-racing expert.
“Other than that head in The Godfather, I don't know a lot about horses,” Chianese said.
QUOTABLE COACH: Louisville football coach John Smith knows his place now that Pitino is his basketball counterpart.
“I bought the horse that leads Pitino's horse to the track every morning,” Smith said jokingly on the backside yesterday.