Posted: Thursday May 5, 2011 3:16PM ; Updated: Friday May 6, 2011 1:58PM
Tim Layden
Tim Layden>INSIDE HORSE RACING

Wide-open Kentucky Derby field is detriment to sport; and Derby picks

Story Highlights

Saturday's Kentucky Derby field is wide open; 10 or 12 horses could win it

But sport thrives when a star such as Secretariat dominates the competition

In a group of 19 questions marks, I like: Nehro, Dialed In and Archarcharch

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LOUISVILLE -- Trainers preparing for the Kentucky Derby keep saying the same thing, over and over again. The race is wide open. There was Kiaran McLaughlin, a Kentucky native who saddled 2006 Belmont Stakes winner Jazil, standing in the morning cold and wind Wednesday on the Churchill Downs backstretch.

"It's about as open as you can get,'' McLaughlin said. "Ten horses. Maybe 12, can win it.''

He's talking and I'm looking down at my digital recorder. The counter on the face tells me that McLaughlin is my 29th recorded interview related to Saturday's 137th Derby. (I had to scrape a little frost off the recorder to see the number because it was chillier in Kentucky than it was in Canada for most of the alpine ski races at the 2010 Olympics. But no complaints; I'm talking to people about a horse race for a living and, besides, I like cold weather). Of those 29 interviews, pretty much every one -- trainers, jockeys, owners -- have offered some variation on the wide-open theme. (Here I'll interrupt my narrative thread to say that, yes, this column ends with my prediction of the first three finishers in the race; feel free to scroll).

On the surface, this seems like a good thing. Blanket finish! Betting possibilities! Huge payoffs! But of course it's really not. It's not a good thing in any sport. What's good is greatness. When there is greatness, that opens the door to both historic achievement and earth-shaking upsets. Wide open means mediocre and everybody here knows it, even if nobody contesting the race is saying it.

The mediocrity is doubly painful in this arena, because for decades the racing game has arrived at Churchill Downs in early May searching for a wonder horse. The history of the sport is disproportionately measured by its champions' beatdowns and not by the competitiveness of its races. What is the most famous horse race in history? Secretariat's surreal, 31-length romp to win the 1973 Belmont Stakes, secure the Triple Crown and validate Big Red's transcendent greatness. (Don't get me wrong, it still gives me chills. "Moving like a tremendous machine'' is right there with "Down Goes Frazier,'' but it is remembered as a coronation, not a competition). Affirmed is best remembered as the last Triple Crown winner, not for his heart-stopping win over rival Alydar in the Belmont.

That is not only the nature of the sport, but also its unspoken marketing strategy, force-fed to the public every spring. Horse racing is struggling with cratering live crowds, a declining horse population and now, even wobbly wagering figures. It's been a long time since racing was a mainstream sport; now it's like track and field or swimming or boxing. There's an audience, but it's not a broad, needle-moving audience. Every year the sport's marketers (and frankly, media as well, and I've absolutely been guilty) declare that the sport can be saved if only we are gifted with another Secretariat, or, failing that, a great horse that America can love, embrace and presumably ride the rails to follow like it did Seabiscuit in the 1930s.

This hypothesis might be severely flawed. It's true that some percentage of the American sports-watching public that normally doesn't care about racing can get behind a horse to some degree. The brilliant mare Zenyatta became very popular last year, leading to her heartbreaking loss in the Breeders' Cup Classic. ESPN's rating for the final hour of the Breeders' Cup telecast was a 3.1, a big improvement over the previous year, but still indicative of a niche sport.

A Triple Crown winner (or even a Triple Crown attempt) might also draw in casual fans. But for the long haul? I'd bet against it heavily, unless that star runs like Secretariat did 38 years ago and that is immeasurably unlikely (and even then, I'm not sure; the sports and sports media worlds have changed spectacularly since 1973). And any horse that wins a Triple Crown (or gets to the Belmont and runs competitively) is likely to be swiftly retired for financial reasons, killing the buzz before it develops. That's an institutional issue.

So a star will not rescue racing. But a star would help the Derby. Premier Pegasus might have been a star after crushing the best California three-year-olds in the March 16 San Felipe Stakes, but he was injured just before the Santa Anita Derby in early April. To Honor and Serve might have been a star after a dominant victory in last fall's Remsen Stakes at Belmont Park in New York, but suffered a strained ligament in March. Toby's Corner might have been a star after a closing victory in the April 6 Wood Memorial prep, but he came up lame just this week, while his owners were en route to Louisville. Uncle Mo might have been a star too, but he was scratched Friday morning because of a gastrointestinal ailment.

What is left is a group 19 horses with question marks.

"I think there's going to be a star that comes out of this,'' says three-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert. That's a logical thought, but not supported by recent history.

This is Derby No. 10 for me as a writer (many before that as a fan, but not here on the grounds). My counter to Baffert goes like this: The Derby does not make stars, it validates them. (OK, sure, whichever horse wins the Derby is a star at least until the Preakness, but that's not long enough to qualify as true stardom. Right, Giacomo?).

 
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