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By any other name, he'd race as fleet

He's a few hoofbeats shy of being politically correct. Indian Charlie. Should it be "Native American Chuck"?

Four speedy legs make Indian Charlie the Kentucky Derby favorite. But the mile-and-a-quarter grind is only his fifth race. No thoroughbred so lightly experienced has ruled at Churchill Downs since Exterminator in 1918.

"Indian Charlie doesn't watch the History Channel," wise-cracked Bob Baffert, the country's hottest horse trainer. "He's ignorant of curses. I've been with Charlie since seeing him born. Never looked better. Primed for greatness. If it doesn't happen Saturday, it won't involve any jinx."

Chances are, Derby patrons will wager heaviest on Indian Charlie. Another obstacle. No post-time Derby favorite has won since Spectacular Bid in 1979.

"Indian Charlie is great at beating odds," said Baffert, a prematurely gray Arizonian with a silver tongue. "So many hot Derby prospects are felled by physical mishaps. Charlie had a huge scare, coming up with a bum knee."

Thanks to arthroscopic surgery, which caused nausea for both horse and trainer, Indian Charlie is perfectly fit to pursue the greatest prize in the business.

This is a year for memorable reversals of sports curses. Dale Earnhardt, most prolific champion in a stock car generation, finally won the Daytona 500. Pro football's Denver Broncos, in their fifth Super Bowl appearance, became the first AFC team in 15 seasons to grasp a Lombardi Trophy. John Elway was a grinning, 37-year-old quarterback who endured after having a knee medically scoped.

"This is our Super Bowl," Baffert said, standing in Louisville rain at Thursday sunup. "Unlike the Broncos and Elway, a horse gets just one opportunity."

Late last year, when Baffert learned that bone fragments were dancing around inside Indian Charlie's left front knee, he wondered if this colt with such raw talent might be robbed of his Derby shot. Without surgery, Charlie could not compete.

At a California hospital, the half-ton animal was latched into a hoist and suspended over Dr. Wayne McElree's operating table. Indian Charlie's legs were tied together, pointing upward not unlike those of an oven-ready Thanksgiving turkey.

Baffert was three hours away, at Santa Anita, attending to his seven-days-a-week profession. "I'm glad this drama didn't occur 12 months earlier," he said. "I would've been in no shape to cope with such uncertainty after losing my first Derby" by a nose with Cavonnier in 1996. Last year, Baffert won the Kentucky roses with Silver Charm.

Upon hearing the voice of McElree on a cell phone, Baffert asked, "Is my horse still alive?" Bob began to grin. "Is he," the trainer would pursue of the noted equine surgeon, "headed for the Kentucky Derby?"

Everybody knows the answer.

"Anybody involved in thoroughbred racing understands how fragile horses are," Baffert said, "especially with four spindly legs carrying a thousand pounds or so, going a mile and more in nasty traffic while toting 118 pounds of jockey and saddle."

He was devastated by Cavonnier's near-miss. "I didn't fully recover until the next Kentucky Derby," Baffert said, "when I enjoyed the ultimate horse racing feeling with Silver Charm. But now, it's quite different. I'm so stress-free. This is probably how John Elway feels, having won a Super Bowl."

Oh, about the favorite's name.It was Baffert's idea. "I think it's catchy," he said. "There's a legitimate Churchill Downs tie-in. An old clocker used to hang around the Downs backstretch, timing horses during workouts. For his own uses. A legitimate Damon Runyon character who was called Indian Charlie."

Indian Charlie, the human being, died in 1994. His name was Charlie Neal. At least that's the best guess. Neal carried two driver's licenses bearing different birthdates and names.

He wore cowboy boots with no socks. Lots of scruffy black clothes, like Johnny Cash. A black Stetson hat on his head. Neal drove an old black Cadillac. He smoked Lucky Strikes, packed a .38 revolver and was often seen nipping on a half-pint of whiskey.

Indian Charlie, the tout, apparently used his clockings in personal betting. He would never discuss anything about himself. Nobody knows if Neal had American Indian blood, but his wife was part Cherokee. Oconee Neal was sickly. Often needing hospital care. Charlie would show up every Monday and pay her medical tab with $100 bills. He never had a checking account.

There's one more Churchill Downs twist. Since 1994, the year of Neal's death, another Louisville horse racing oddball named Ed Musselman has produced a crudely printed daily tout sheet. Offering not only betting tips but fierce and outrageous commentary.

In honor of the late clocker, Musselman calls his publication "Indian Charlie." So piercing and personal are some paragraphs that Musselman faces lawsuits filed by bloodstock agents Cecil Seaman and Don "Hee Haw" Alvey.

This week's toughest Indian Charlie tout-sheet barbs have been aimed at Rick Bozich, a Louisville newspaper columnist. Now comes added visibility for Musselman because of a Derby favorite with the same name.

"I find the Indian Charlie tout sheet more amusing than offensive," Baffert said. "To me, it's intended to entertain. We can use more levity in thoroughbred racing.

"If my horse doesn't win this Derby, he (Musselman) may have some interesting words to print about me. If we do win, it will make even bigger celebrities out of everything that happens to be called Indian Charlie."

Against a unique array of odds.