The Karma Factor In Kentucky Derby Handicapping

By Jude T. Feld
"Every action generates a force of energy that returns to us in like kind...what we sow is what we reap. When we choose actions that bring success and happiness to others, the fruit of our karma is happiness and success."--Deepak Chopra on "The Law of Karma"

I was enlightened to the value of "Karmic Handicapping" in 1973, at the tender age of 16 when I read the headline in the Los Angeles Times sports page, "Mary Jones Gives Shoe The Boot."

Heiress Mary Florsheim Jones, owner of my then favorite horse Cougar II, thought Bill Shoemaker was too old to ride her big horse anymore, despite the fact that Shoe had won several stakes on the handsome Chilean import.

Mary wanted a young Laffit Pincay, Jr. to pilot Cougar II in the Hollywood Gold Cup and reluctantly, trainer Charlie Whittingham agreed to the rider switch. Shoemaker was relegated to ride Charlie's third-stringer, Mrs. A.W. Stollery's Kennedy Road.

Well, the rest as they say is history. Kennedy Road won the Hollywood Gold Cup under a masterful ride by little Bill and I still consider that race one of the greatest moments our sport has ever witnessed.

Chopra's Law of Karma has had a tremendous influence on the Kentucky Derby in the last quarter-century, starting with the great Seattle Slew. Already scrutinized by the press for keeping a horse of such obvious quality with unfashionable trainer Billy Turner, Karen and Mickey Taylor stuck with Slew's regular rider Jean Cruguet, "choosing actions that bring success and happiness to others," won the Triple Crown and began a legacy that continues today.

The very next year, despite immense speculation by racing pundits the world over, Hall of Fame trainer Laz Barrera and Louis and Patrice Wolfson kept a young and inexperienced Steve Cauthen on their stable star Affirmed. This proved to be a wise choice as they were rewarded with a Triple Crown victory..."happiness and success."

Jean Cruguet was a solid journeyman rider when he won the Derby and Steve Cauthen would develop into a Hall of Fame jockey of international acclaim but Grover G. "Buddy" Delp would test the Law of Karma to the limits in 1979 with a little known apprentice named Ronnie Franklin.

A troubled young man, Ronnie Franklin was all but adopted by Delp, who probably karmically guaranteed his Derby success when he first took Franklin in. Not overly gifted in the saddle and far from Mensa material, Franklin rode with abandon causing many of my Daily Racing Form colleagues to wonder, "If Spectacular Bid wins the Derby, will his number stay up?"

Franklin proved equal to the task providing Harry Meyerhoff's Hawksworth Farm and Buddy Delp their place in the Kentucky Derby winners' circle and only stepping on a safety pin the morning of the Belmont Stakes would keep Spectacular Bid from becoming the third straight Triple Crown winner.

In 1986, thirteen years after Mary F. Jones took Shoemaker off Cougar II, 73-year-old Charlie Whittingham called upon 54-year-old Bill Shoemaker to pilot Mrs. Howard B. Keck's Ferdinand in the Run For The Roses. "You dance with the fella that brung ya," Whittingham would say when questioned by the neighsayers about his over-the-hill rider.

Still trying to show Mrs. Jones (by now Mrs. Bradley), "where Molly put the peaches," Charlie gave Shoe a leg up on the beautiful chestnut and like the dynamic duo had done a thousand times in their youthful past, the recently dubbed "Sunshine Boys" captured Whittingham's first Derby with a colt trained to perfection and ridden with erudite aplomb.

So much for positive karma you say, but what about the negative side?

In 1992, Shelley Riley was training a $7500 Keeneland January Sale purchase that she had selected herself, named Casual Lies. Journeyman jockey Alan Patterson had regularly breezed the colt and rode him to several victories. Just before the Derby, Ms. Riley, who will never be confused with Laz Barrera, Buddy Delp or even Billy Turner decided that Patterson wasn't good enough to ride Casual Lies in the Derby.

Riley hired the great Gary Stevens to guide her charge around Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May and blamed him for the colt's defeat when he finished second to Lil E. Tee! Gary rode a great race, but he had virtually no chance to win because Shelley's decision to change riders blatantly defied the Law of Karma.

Even Bobby Frankel, who probably has made fewer mistakes than any trainer with a plaque in the Hall of Fame, tried to sneak one by the karmic influences in 2000. Brice Blanc, who was instrumental in developing Aptitude into a solid sophomore from a sulky two-year-old, was replaced just before the Juddmonte color-bearer ventured to Louisville, by perpetual Derby bridesmaid, Alex Solis.

Frankel agonized over this decision for days. He knows about the Law of Karma, but he chose a different path, hoping that all the Fu Peg hype would have karma looking the other way. This virtually guaranteed the garland of roses for his good friend Neil Drysdale and another second-place finish for Solis.

What about this year? It started early.

Kenny McPeek had two legitimate chances to win the Kentucky Derby until he took Tony D'Amico off of both of his horses. How many mistakes did D'Amico make with Harlan's Holiday and Repent? McPeek had the power to bring happiness and success to Tony D'Amico and get the same for himself but the Law of Karma finds him hot and dirty on Derby Day.

Jockey Joe Steiner won two Derby preps on Danthebluegrassman but he was sent "apickinandagrinnin" by Bob Baffert, in favor of David Flores. Baffert could have made Joe Steiner successful (He's already happy) and made himself happy (He's already successful) but he gave David Flores the call in the El Camino Real Derby. The only thing that David's whip hit in the Golden Gate stretch was the dirt. Karma 1. Baffert 0. It doesn't look like Silver Bullets or silver bowls on silver hair in the Churchill infield this year.

Trainer Steve Margolis took a page from Kenny McPeek's press release. "It's an advantage to have Pat Day," he said, firing Brian Peck after he piloted Request For Parole to victories in the Frog Stakes and John Battaglia at Turfway Park this year.

"Father forgive them, for they know not what they do."

Now my friend Murray Johnson eliminated his chances for happiness and success by giving D'Amico the heave-ho on Perfect Drift for the Spiral Stakes. "You hate to look stupid," he said. Don't look now, Murray!

There's sure to be more jockey flushing before the first Saturday in May but consider this a call for a karmically aware owner or trainer put Tony D'Amico on a contender and give themselves a big shot at smelling the roses. John Amerman, are you there?