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Picking a winner

10 tips to help you sort out the Kentucky Derby field

Posted: Friday May 5, 2006 4:28PM; Updated: Saturday May 6, 2006 4:53PM
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Barbaro is the best in a 20-horse field and is undefeated in five career races.
Barbaro is the best in a 20-horse field and is undefeated in five career races.
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- How do you pick a winner in Saturday's 132nd running of the Kentucky Derby? Here are some helpful tips.

1. Barbaro is the best horse

Never mind trainer Michael Matz's heroic backstory (well, mind it long enough to read my feature on Matz in this week's edition of Sports Illustrated). Barbaro has immense talent. "Awesome is the only word I can think of,'' exercise rider Peter Brette, a former champion jockey, told me on Friday morning at Churchill Downs. Florida Derby winner Barbaro has the rare combination of speed, tractability and courage that only the very best racehorses possess. He was undefeated in five career races for a reason.

2. Lawyer Ron is the second-best horse

I talked to trainer Nick Zito on Friday morning, too. Zito has won five Derbys; he had five horses in last year's race. This year he has none, but he has watched 10 days of workouts. "Two horses are training the best,'' Zito said. "Barbaro is one. Lawyer Ron is the other.''

Lawyer Ron has a story, too. He swept the three Arkansas prep races while running under the ownership of the estate of James T. Hines Jr., an Owensboro, Ky., multimillionaire businessman who died in February, leaving behind six children and four ex-wives and a complex will. Part interest in the horse was sold two days before the Derby, but he will race in Hines' silks.

Never mind that, either. As trainer Bob Holthus said, "He doesn't know he's been sold. And I'm not going to tell him.'' Since serendipitously switching to dirt in December, the barrister is six for six. He has started 14 times, four more than any other horse in the field, and he has won from the front, middle and back of the pack.

3. The best horse doesn't always win

History is full of Derby winners who appear to have been outclassed. You need remember only one: Giacomo, at 50-1 last year.

The best horse fails to win many races, but the unique nature of the Kentucky Derby makes it even more difficult for class to prevail. Pace, traffic, distance, nervous jockeys and 150,000-plus spectators all make it problematic for a talented horse to rise to the top.

There is no horse race in the U.S. quite like the Kentucky Derby. As Dan Hendricks, trainer of Derby morning-line favorite Brother Derek, says, "None of these horses has ever run in a 20-horse field. None of them have gone a mile-and-a-quarter.''

4. You can buy a 24-ounce beer before the sun comes up

It's true. I was walking toward the barn area early this morning and two guys were selling tall ones out of an ice-filled tub at 6:15. That was Friday, the day of the Kentucky Oaks, which is a big event, but essentially the jayvee game and the jayvee party.

This has nothing to do with handicapping the race, but I thought you'd like to know that you can get a giant beer with your bagel. I didn't know whether to be appalled or wish I wasn't working so I could pop one open.