The wide-open 139th Kentucky Derby filled with uplifting stories
LOUISVILLE -- The morning-line favorite for Saturday's Kentucky Derby is a long-striding, rhythmic bay colt named Orb, in homage to his sire, Malibu Moon. He is co-owned by Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps and Stuart S. Janney III, racing figures pulled from a bygone era. Phipps, 72, is the descendent of a racing family that has been in the game for nearly nine decades and bred some of the greatest horses in history; Janney, 64, is the son of the man who owned the great and ill-fated filly, Ruffian. They are first cousins, wealthy Patrician men whose lives could have been told by Fitzgerald, and for whom racing is a dignified diversion. It has become modern Derby tradition for owners to stand briefly in the spotlight as their horses -- however remote their chances -- prepare for the race. Yet Phipps and Janney will not arrive in Kentucky until Friday.
Not far from Orb's barn, where trainer Shug McGaughey supervises his daily activities, Todd Pletcher trains five Derby entrants, including Verrazano, the morning-line second choice (4-1). Verrazano is owned in part by a partnership group headed by Kevin Scaturchio and Bryan Sullivan, whose combined age, 68, falls squarely between Phipps's and Janney's. Another Pletcher horse, Overanalyze, is owned by gregarious millionaire Mike Repole, 44, who jumped into racing in 2007 after selling his and his partner's bottled water company, Glaceau (maker of Vitaminwater and Smartwater) to Coca-Cola for $4.4 billion (and lost 2011 Derby favorite Uncle Mo to injury on the eve of the race).
Understand: The Kentucky Derby is a rich spectacle that cuts across the entire breadth of America. There is an abundance of human beauty and equine athleticism. There is a passion that is deeply colloquial, freighted with history and unlike any other sporting event on earth. It is Kentucky's own, on loan to the nation for a day. There is also a red carpet, where celebrities emerge from television shows, movies and Super Bowls to walk briefly by before disappearing into skyboxes. And there is drunkenness on a truly epic scale: the mint julep is a fierce closer. Yet inside the white lines, as it were, the Derby is unique in the variety of its players. It was 10 years ago that a headstrong gelding named Funny Cide, owned in part by a group of high school friends from far upstate New York, hijacked the Derby from the blue bloods. Two weeks later, he won the Preakness and his owners sang the Sacketts Harbor High School alma mater in the Pimlico barn area.
One year before Funny Cide, the Derby had been won by a (now-deceased) Saudi prince named Ahmed bin Salman who bought War Emblem for $1 million out of petty cash three weeks before the race. So it flows, back and forth. One year the winning trainer is an understated lifer (John Shirreffs, Giacomo in 2005); another year he's a shady blowhard with a despicable medication record (Rick Dutrow, Big Brown in 2008). One year the jockey is a mid-Atlantic journeyman (Stewart Elliott, Smarty Jones in 2004); another year -- or multiple years -- he is a Churchill savant (Calvin Borel on Street Sense in 2007, Mine That Bird in 2009 and Super Saver in 2010).
So it is again in 2013. Borel is back, riding dangerous finisher Revolutionary (trained by Pletcher), though he only got the mount when Javier Castellano decided to ride Normandy Invasion three weeks before the Derby (Castellano rode both in their final Derby prep races). Borel is notorious for finding tiny holes on the rail and for winning in the slop; both Mine That Bird and Super Saver won from the inside on off tracks. The Derby forecast is for daylong showers. On Tuesday morning of Derby week, Borel said on the Derby backstretch, "I think [Revolutionary] will love an off-track."
"You love it, too," said his questioner. And with that, Borel let loose with a sustained cackle. "I do, sir," he said. "I do. This track gets frickin' awesome when it's wet."
Cot Campbell, 85, is back, too, with another Pletcher horse, Palace Malice. Campbell has sent seven previous horses to the Derby, but just one since 2000. And D. Wayne Lukas, 77, whose 45 Derby starters are more than any trainer in history, but who hasn't won since Charismatic in 1999, will saddle both Oxbow (with 50-year-old comeback jockey Gary Stevens) and Rebel Stakes winner Willtakecharge, who comes into the race off a staggering 52-day layoff. "I'm not sure I can pull this off," said Lukas, standing outside his barn in his standard outfit of a white cowboy hat and leather chaps. "I'd like to sit with [deceased Hall of Fame trainers] Woody Stephens and Laz Barrera and talk about it."
Trainer Eddie Plesa, 62, and his wife, Laurie, are both the children of jockeys who have spent their lives on the racetrack (Laurie's brother is John Servis, who trained Smarty Jones). Early in their marriage, the Plesas lived together in a trailer near Monmouth Park in New Jersey, and now they own a chunk of Holy Bull prep race winner Itsmyluckyday. The last -- and only previous -- time Eddie saddled a Derby horse was in 1999, when filly Three Ring finished 19th and last in the field.
McGaughey, 62, a Kentuckian with racing in his veins, returns to the Derby for the first time since since Saarland finished a dull 10th in 2002 and just the second time since the great Easy Goer was beaten soundly by Sunday Silence in 1989. He claimed early in Derby week that he would become more frantic as the week unfolded, but Thursday morning, he leaned against a shedrow wall and said, "I feel pretty good. Everything is going well." And it's true -- railbirds have raved about Orbs' appearance on the track. (McGaughey's onetime intern, 34-year-old Chad Brown, trains Normandy Invasion, who is viewed as a threat, but strangely "ran off" Thursday morning, turning a routine gallop into a sizzling three-furlong workout. How it will affect him is uncertain, but intriguing).
And then there is Goldencents, an embarrassment of storyline riches. His jockey is Kevin Krigger, a 29-year-old journeyman from St. Croix who will be the second black jockey to ride in the Derby since 1921; none have won it since Jimmy Winfield in 1902. His trainer is Doug O'Neill, who won the Derby and Preakness a year ago with I'll Have Another and was subject to intense scrutiny over his record of medication violations. Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino owns five percent of Goldencents, which he bought for $5,000 last summer. Was that a bargain? Just a few weeks later, after Goldencents won his first career start on Sept. 2 at Del Mar, majority owners Glenn Sorgenstein and Josh Kaplan bought out a 25-percent partner for $250,000 (from an original $15,500 stake). That meant that Pitino's investment had grown from $5,000 to $50,000. "And it's grown more since," said Sorgenstein, who, along with Kaplan, has turned down multiple and increasing offers for Goldencents, named for the pair's coin auction website.
Yet there is a catch in all of this. As many angles as there are for telling the story of the Derby, that is how many possibilities there are for the outcome of the race. Picking a winner is uniquely challenging, even for skilled handicappers. (You are not reading the words of a skilled handicapper.)
Think of it like this: Suppose you are charged with predicting the winner of the Super Bowl. Ravens over 49ers. Jets over Colts. Easy enough (or not), but straightforward. Two teams, vast body of evidence, metrics galore. Now suppose you are asked to make this prediction in the middle of December when roughly 20 teams are still alive in the hunt for playoff spots, byes and home fields. And suppose these teams are comprised of 16-year-old football players who have played only a few games in their lives and this "Super Bowl" in which they are participating will be different from any other football game. It will be longer, more intense, with slightly unusual rules and a vast increase in spectators and public interest. None of the participants will ever contest another game quite like it again.
Dwell on this for a moment. It's absurd. Yet it approximates the process of selecting the winner of the Kentucky Derby. As I wrote in Sports Illustrated this week, you might as well tape a copy of the Daily Racing Form to the wall and throw darts at it. Late Saturday afternoon 20 three-year-old horses will go to the post at Churchill Downs in Louisville to contest the most important horse race in the United States and the last one still watched by a wide audience (excepting the Belmont Stakes in those years when a Triple Crown is at stake). Though their careers are both just beginning and nearly over, three-year-olds are like teenagers, still developing their athleticism and their personalities. None have run the full Derby distance of 1 ¼ miles and none have ever raced in a field of 20 horses, which is much too large and leaves many starters subject to the post position draw and racing luck, regardless of their talent.
Most trainers on the Churchill backside figure there are 5-7 horses with a real chance to win (Orb, Goldencents, Verrazano, Revolutionary and Itsmyluckyday being most prominently mentioned). Normandy Invasion, Palace Malice, Mylute and Java's War are among the live longshots. European entrant Lines of Battle is a virtual unknown quantity who arrived only Thursday. Rain is a giant wild card.
There seem to be few truly fast horses in this year's Derby. I am expecting Krigger, atop Goldencents, to get to the front relatively early in the race. But I don't expect him to cruise along easily (that hasn't happened since 2002, when War Emblem won on the front), but instead to receive pressure from Verrazano (among the few other fast runners in the field). That will leave Borel and Revolutionary to jump to the lead from the inside leaving the quarter pole and Orb to catch Revolutionary from behind in the final strides while Normandy Invasion rushes up for third. My final predictions:
3. Normandy Invasion.
And if none of that happens, it's cool. It will be a good story, because it always is.