Just when it seemed the Kentucky Derby picture was hopelessly murky, hopelessly clouded with mediocrities, a sleek colt named Unbridled's Song came charging off the turn for home in the Florida Derby last Saturday and literally stepped from the afternoon shadows to announce what many had suspected but no one really knew: He is the fastest 3-year-old of the moment and the favorite to win the roses at Churchill Downs on May 4.
It all became clear with startling suddenness in the last three furlongs of the nine-furlong race. Unbridled's Song swept past the � pole in a sizzling 1:09[4/5], a head in front of the tiring Appealing Skier. He left that colt and seven others reeling in his wake as he bounded through the mile in a fiery 1:34[3/5], opening up a four-length lead at mid-stretch. In the end, under a hand ride from jockey Mike Smith, the Song coasted home to win by almost six in a very swift 1:47[4/5].
"Exceptional," declared Mark Hopkins, a veteran speed handicapper for the Daily Racing Form. Hopkins calculates Beyer speed figures—numerical expressions of how fast a horse really ran with the speed of the racing surface factored in. Hours after the Florida Derby, Hopkins announced that Unbridled's Song had run a Beyer figure of 114, some six points higher, or four lengths faster, than the average Kentucky Derby winner over the last five years. "This is probably the best pure speed figure run in the Florida Derby since Spectacular Bid [in 1979]," says Hopkins. "If Unbridled's Song runs like this on the first Saturday in May, he will win the Kentucky Derby."
If he does, he will make as much history as money. Last October, in his finest hour as a 2-year-old, Unbridled's Song raced through the mud at Belmont Park to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile by a neck over Hennessy. Since the Breeders' Cup series began in 1984, none of its 11 Juvenile winners has gone on to win the Derby. Unbridled's Song could well be the first. With his long legs, supple physique and stylish dab of white on his nose, he would certainly cut a handsome figure in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs—if they could get him to stand still.
Oh, yes. He's a nervous, headstrong colt who has been known to pitch a fit among paddock crowds, rearing and spinning on his hind legs and disrupting post parades. His trainer, James Ryerson, so feared that Unbridled's Song might make a scene last Saturday that he had his beefy New York assistant, Jimmy Homewood, fly in for the sole purpose of walking the colt from the barn to the paddock before the race. By the time the colt had dragged Homewood into the paddock, poor Homewood's cheeks were a candy pink and he had broken a sweat, but Unbridled's Song threw no notable tantrums, and he paraded to the post like a gentleman.
"He wasn't an angel today," Ryerson said after the race, "but he's beginning to settle down. He's got all the ability in the world—if the nerves don't overcome the ability. He's a real good horse."
People have been saying such things about him for more than a year. When Ernie Paragallo, who owns a computer software business on Long Island, bought Unbridled's Song for $200,000 at the Saratoga yearling sales in August 1994, he was aiming to pinhook him—that is, to resell him and make a profit. Only six months later the colt was up for bid at a 2-year-olds-in-training sale in California and showed such an extraordinary turn of foot in his workouts that he had the most blas� of horsemen doing double takes. He was scorching 220 yards in 10[1/5] seconds, which is about as fast as a horse can run. When a Japanese horseman, Hiroshi Fujita, bid $1.4 million for the colt, potentially the highest price ever paid for a baby in training, Paragallo was ambivalent, though he stood to make a $1.2 million profit. "I was ecstatic about the price," he recalls. "But he was a once-in-a-lifetime horse."
Here the fates intervened. Paragallo agreed to the deal, but when X-rays indicated a chip in the colt's left front ankle, Fujita backed out. Paragallo interpreted that as an omen not to sell and waved off Fujita's attempt to renegotiate. "Will you think about a reduction in price?" Fujita's representative asked. "The horse has a problem."
"I'll think about nothing," Paragallo said. "He's not for sale."
So Paragallo held on to the colt, who acquired a reputation as the fastest 2-year-old in America who had never run a race. He worked everywhere, blowing around ovals faster than most horses race, but small problems kept him from the post until last Aug. 26 at Saratoga, when he panfried a field of maidens to win by 8� lengths. He opened up six lengths on the field in the Mo�t Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park on Oct. 7 but tired badly to finish fourth, beaten 5� lengths by Maria's Mon. Three weeks later he won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.