LOUISVILLE (WAVE) – The day of the Kentucky Derby is excruciatingly long for the owners, trainers, and jockeys who have mounts in the world's most famous race. From dawn's early light until almost twilight, they kill time as best they can, trying to find ways to take their minds off what's at stake when the Derby's starting gates finally spring open.
The Derby, you see, is more than just a horse race at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. It's a festival of colorful costumes, red roses, and a strange concoction known as the mint julep. It's a warm embrace of tradition, history, and the most beautiful animals God has put on the face of the earth.
It's a perfect excuse to get weepy when the Derby horses come on the track and everybody sings "My Old Kentucky Home," the sentimental old plantation lament written by Stephen Collin Foster. It's the one sporting event that women love as much as men, due to the fashions and the parties.
But mostly, as Dan Fogelberg sings it, "It's the chance of a lifetime in a lifetime of chance." In the space of only two minutes and change, fortunes and careers and reputations literally change right before the eyes of the 160,000 or so at Churchill and the millions more watching worldwide on television.
Four years ago, hundreds of breeders around the world planned matings that most hoped would produce a Derby winner. The result of those meetings was a foal crop of around 30,000. Of those, only 20 will be loaded into the Derby starting gates this afternoon.
So the odds against even making the Derby field are staggering. It's like winning the lottery. But then to be the one that's led into the Derby's winner circle is just mind-blowing, considering all the negative things that can happen when 20 horses strain to get a mile and a quarter for the first time in their lives.
The possibilities in the 144th Derby are fascinating. Will the favored Justify give trainer Bob Baffert his fifth Derby victory, putting him behind only Plain Ben Jones' record six. Or will the victory go to Dale Romans or Bill Mott, who never have won the Derby despite winning more races at Churchill than any trainer in the track's history?
Mott trains Hofburg, who seems to be just coming into his own, and Romans trains both Free Drop Billy and Promises Fulfilled. Because he grew up a trainer's son in the shadow of Churchill's twin spires, Romans again will be the people's choice in his home town.
Mega-trainer Todd Pletcher will attack Derby 144 with four legitimate contenders who won their last starts convincingly – Magnum Moon (Arkansas Derby), Noble Indy (Louisiana Derby), Audible (Florida Derby), and Vino Rosso (Wood Memorial). Nobody would be shocked if he became the first Derby trainer to finish 1-2-3.
The field also will include the winners of last year's Breeders Cup Juvenile (Good Magic) and Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf (Mendelssohn). The latter sold for $3 million as a yearling and won the UAE Derby, his last prep for the Kentucky Derby, by an astonishing 18 lengths.
Historians would love a win by Bravazo, who's owned by Calumet Farm and trained by 82-year-old D. Wayne Lukas. Calumet's eight victories are the Derby record, and Lukas' four Derby wins tie him with Baffert for second all-time.
Four runners-up in their last Derby prep – Enticed in the Wood Memorial, Bolt d'Oro in the Santa Anita Derby, Hofburg in the Florida Derby, and Flameaway in the Blue Grass Stakes – offer an intriguing exacta box for longshot players.
Enticed is, well, enticing. He runs in the royal blue silks of Godolphin Stable, owned by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashad Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and vice-president of the United Arab Emirates. Although he has spent millions on well-bred yearlings, Sheikh Mohammed has never won the Derby.
You have to love the idea of one of the world's richest and most powerful men running in the same race as Dale Romans of Louisville's South End. I'd love to see them toasting each other at some beer joint near Iroquois Park.
Of the rest, My Boy Jack figures to be coming at the end. But the best thing Solomini has going for him is that Baffert trains him, and Firenze Fire, Lone Sailor, and Instilled Regard just seem to be out of their league in this field.
In the hours before the Derby, the trainers and jockeys will be busy with horses on the undercard. But the Derby will never be far from their minds. What detail has been overlooked? What bit of strategy not considered? And so forth and so on, until it's finally time for their rendezvous with destiny.
Once the field goes into the starting gate, it's all in the hands of the jockeys. The dean of this year's jockey colony is Mike Smith, still winning big races at 52. He's another reason almost everyone on the backstretch seems to have fallen in love with Justify, the good-looking, long-striding, Baffert-trained colt who hasn't been challenged while going 3-for-3.
But fools walk in where angels fear to tread, and that's as good a reason as any to explain why I'm picking Mendelssohn to win, with Bolt d'Oro second, Hofburg third, and Enticed fourth.
But, of course, I reserve the right to change my mind. That's what happens when there's so much idle time before the Derby. As the suspense grows, so does the opportunity for second-guessing.
That's the way it has been for 144 years, and that's the way it always will be when so many horsemen want so desperately to win the race that has become as much a treasure around the world as it is in Kentucky.
Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter who contributes regular columns to WAVE3.com.
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