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It's too early to crown Monarchos

The racing world is so hungry for a great champion that it prematurely declares good horses to be superhorses. Last year, Fusaichi Pegasus was proclaimed the Second Coming of Secretariat after his Kentucky Derby victory, but the rest of his career was a disappointment. This spring, Point Given was widely described as a budding superstar until a fifth-place finish in the Derby deflated his reputation.

And now the world hails Monarchos after his victory in the second-fastest Derby ever run. Are the superlatives justified this time?

Maybe. In fact, there may have been two great horses in Saturday's race, not just one. But after the sobering lessons taught by Fusaichi Pegasus last year, racing fans should avoid a rush to judgment.

Monarchos's performance was a powerful one by almost any objective measurement. His winning margin of 4 3/4 lengths was the biggest in the Derby since Spend A Buck's runaway victory in 1985. His time of 1 minute 59.97 seconds made him the only horse besides Secretariat to win with a sub-two-minute clocking. The Churchill Downs racing strip was exceptionally fast Saturday, producing three track records. But it was only a couple fifths of a second faster than last year's souped-up track, over which Fusaichi Pegasus covered 1 1/4 miles in 2:01.12. Speed figures, of course, take into account the condition of the racing surface, and Monarchos earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 116 -- better than any Derby winner since Unbridled's 116 in 1990.

Monarchos will never have a trip better than the one he got at Churchill. A horse who rallies from far behind benefits when a fast pace takes its toll on the front-runners. The leaders in Saturday's race set the fastest pace in Derby history -- a half-mile in 44.86 seconds -- and helped all the stretch-runners. Not only did Monarchos rally effectively, but so, too, did second-place Invisible Ink, who has never won a stakes race, and fourth-place Thunder Blitz, a 25-to-1 shot.

A horse who rallies from far behind in a large field will usually be forced to lose ground circling the field, but jockey Jorge Chavez gave Monarchos a perfect ride. He advanced along the rail much of the way, then angled out in the stretch with no loss of momentum and flew past the leader. It was a trip very much like that of Fusaichi Pegasus last year.

Because of the speed-favoring nature of American racing, horses with Monarchos's style find themselves under adverse conditions more often than they enjoy favorable set-ups like the Derby. When Monarchos runs in a race with a solitary front-runner or a slow pace, he will have more of an opportunity to show how good he is. When he shows that he can overcome adversity, he will fully deserve to be showered with superlatives.

One member of the Derby field faced adversity and stood up to it: Congaree. Trainer Bob Baffert's colt had looked brilliant winning three straight races, including an authoritative victory over Monarchos in the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct. But Congaree came to Churchill Downs lacking the experience and preparation that history says are essential for a Derby winner. (The last horse to win the Derby with only four previous starts in his career was Exterminator in 1918.)

Moreover, the speedy Congaree was one of the victims of the hot pace that helped Monarchos. As the field reached the first turn, he was fifth in the lead pack of five horses setting a blistering pace. The other four were all winners of major stakes, yet the pace took an excruciating toll on them. Millennium Wind lost by 20 lengths, Songandaprayer by 27, Balto Star by 35, Keats by 53.

Congaree not only survived the early battle, but he took the lead on the final turn. Point Given loomed up outside him, but he shook off the challenge from his illustrious stablemate. Only in the last eighth of a mile did he weaken, with Monarchos surging past and Invisible Ink catching him for second place in the final stride.

Baffert recognized the quality of his colt's performance but nevertheless couldn't suppress his disappointment at the day's results. "I was hoping to run one-two," he said. Of the favorite, he said: "Point Given wasn't himself. He just didn't fire his best shot. The horse I know did not show up."

It is possible that Point Given suffered from some yet-undiscovered physical problem, or that he couldn't handle the 10th furlong of the Derby, or that he simply had an off day. But it is certain that he was overhyped before the race. Point Given had been in only two highly competitive races before Saturday and had lost both (albeit with tough trips.) He had looked impressive winning his two starts in California, but it's easy to look good against overmatched competition. People talked about him as if he had already proved himself a great horse, but the Derby was in fact his big test -- and he failed it.

In a bygone era, young horses were campaigned so heavily that they had a chance to prove their greatness before May of their 3-year-old season. It was hardly a rush to judgment to hail Citation as a great horse when he brought a 15-for-16 record to the Kentucky Derby. But contemporary horses are lightly raced; the top three finishers in Saturday's had made only 17 career starts. It is premature to make definitive judgments about such youngsters until they have gone through a series of tests such as the Triple Crown provides. So prudent people will not describe Saturday's heroes as superhorses. But Monarchos and Congaree surely have the potential to be great.

2001 The Washington Post Company