LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - It's a crying shame that the 143rd Kentucky Derby doesn't have any good storylines. All we have are a one-eyed horse, a trainer who was kidnapped twice in Venezuela, a horse that hasn't won a race, and a neurotic favorite.
And then there's a trainer who was virtually raised in the shadow of the twin spires and another who came from Dubai, a country halfway around the world. And let's not forget the brother trainer-jockey team, or the three-horse entry by the iconic Calumet Farm.
How can anybody get captivated by any of that?
Of course, I jest. Even by the Derby's high standards, the 143rd edition is so full of intriguing stories that it's impossible to wander around the backstretch at Churchill Downs without running into one.
They all will collide late on Saturday afternoon, when the field of 20 breaks from two starting gates and immediately gets funneled into the long stretch for the first time. This is when it becomes obvious that all the betting "systems” and theories are meaningless.
More than any other race, the Kentucky Derby is all about fate. Or luck. Or destiny. Use whatever term you want, but it all boils down to who has the best horse on this particular day and who gets the best trip over the mile-and-a-quarter that literally changes lives in two minutes and change.
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The uncertainty is a part of the Derby's unique charm. Among all major sporting events, it's the only one that involves roses and mint juleps and a sweet, sad song about an old Kentucky home far away.
The Derby is all about history, tradition, romance, and mystery. Mostly, of course, it's about thoroughbreds, the loveliest animals on God's green earth. But around the Derby horses has grown a party that women love as much as men because of the fashion statements they get to make, and because their chances of picking the winner are every bit as good as any man.
The Derby has survived through World War I, Prohibition, the Great Depression, World War II, the civil-rights movement, Vietnam, Watergate and the Designated Hitter rule. It has danced its way through the Jazz Age, the Big Band Era, Elvis and Little Richard, the Beatles and the Stones, and even the Disco Age.
Whether it survives Donald Trump remains to be seen. But for today, at least, an estimated crowd of 150,000 or so will strain Churchill Downs' restrooms and concessions stands to the breaking point. Untold millions will watch the Derby telecast and bet their francs, yen, and pesos at racetracks and other venues around the world.
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"Anytime somebody finds out you're a horse trainer,” said Mark Casse earlier this week, "the first thing they want to know is whether you've won the Kentucky Derby. It would certainly be nice to be able to say, 'Yes.'"
Casse will have two horses in the Derby. State of Honor is so big his nickname around the barn is "Tiny." He should be on or near what figures to be a modest pace. His other colt, Classic Empire, is the morning-line favorite because of his wins in last year's Breeders Cup Juvenile and the Arkansas Derby.
But the problem with Classic Empire is the two times he was sent out to train, he simply refused to run. Although Casse has been working on both his psyche and his fitness, he admits he has no idea what to expect in the Derby. It all depends on whether Classic Empire feels like running.
The kidnapped trainer is Antonio Sano, who was more or less the Bob Baffert of Venezuela until his second kidnapping. He was released after 36 days of captivity, but only because his family had to empty its bank accounts in order to come up with the ransom money. He relocated in South Florida and now has a horse, Gunnevera, who has a legitimate shot to win the roses under jockey Javier Castellano, a native of Venezuela who recently was elected to racing's Hall of Fame.
The one-eyed horse, who was named Patch even before he lost his left eye, and the winless horse, Sonneteer, both are part of Calumet Farm's three-horse entry. He's trained by Keith Desormeaux and ridden by his brother Kent Desormeaux.
However, Calumet's best hope probably lies in Hence, who was one of the "now" horses on the backstretch all week. He and the other Calumet horses will run in the black-and-gold silks of current owner Brad Kelley instead of the devil's red-and-blue silks made famous by such immortals as Whirlaway, Citation and Hill Gail.
The "home" horse will be J Boys Echo, who's trained by Louisville native Dale Romans. Since he was a kid learning the game from father Jerry Romans, Dale has dreamed of winning the Derby. But he has no better chance than Saeed bin Suroor, who will saddle Thunder Snow for the Godolphin Stable of Dubai.
Sometimes the best storylines are obvious, and sometimes they require a bit more digging. But they always are there. Three of the top Derby picks – McCraken, Always Dreaming, and Irish War Cry – don't seem to have anything unusual about them, but the media will find something upon which to focus if one of them wins.
The Derby is the moment of truth for bettors as well as the horses. The only way to assure a victory is to be on every horse, but that's not gambling. So good horses must be discarded in the crapshoot that is Derby handicapping.
It says here that the 143rd Derby will be won by McCracken, with Gunneverra finishing second and Irish War Cry third. The most intriguing longshots are State of Honor and Looking at Lee.
But the best story would be Patch.
America is nothing if not a nation of animal lovers, and the idea of a one-eyed horse winning the Kentucky Derby would touch hearts far beyond those who cry when "My Old Kentucky Home" is played before America's most sentimental sporting event.
Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter who contributes regular sports columns to WAVE3.com.
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