Don't tell me. The Kentucky Derby is this Saturday, and you're not up to speed. One day you're coming down from the Final Four, ramping up for the NFL draft and finalizing your rotisserie baseball team, and the next thing you know somebody is asking for your pick in the office Derby pool. This is a problem because you don't know Nick Zito from Barry Zito, and you're thinking Jeremy Rose is a tight-end prospect who went in the sixth round of the draft. Relax. Here's a 10-step plan for getting caught up on one of the deepest and most fascinating Derbys in years.
1. It's Nick Zito's world; we're just living in it.
At 57, trainer Zito, a mellowed version of the wired-on-life New Yorker who won the Derby in '91 (with Strike the Gold) and '94 (Go for Gin), is expected to have five starters, 25% of the maxed-out field. Among them are likely favorite Bellamy Road, the towering, dark-bay monster owned by George Steinbrenner; tiny Florida Derby winner High Fly; pure closer Noble Causeway; Tampa Bay Derby winner Sun King; and Andromeda's Hero, who was third in the Arkansas Derby.
In 2002 and 2003 Zito had no Derby starters, a long fall from the early '90s. "Hell, no, I'm not the same guy I was back then," says Zito (above). "I'm human, and I think maybe I'm a little more thankful than the average guy for what I've got now."
2. Why all the buzz about Bellamy Road?
Late on the afternoon of April 9 in the Wood Memorial, Steinbrenner's colt blasted loose from a modest field of Derby hopefuls and won by 17 1/2 lengths. It was the type of performance that left railbirds speechless, equaling a 32-year-old track record and producing a staggering Beyer Speed Figure of 120, the highest recorded in a Derby prep. Javier Castellano--a 27-year-old rising star in the jockey business--scarcely moved on Bellamy Road (below). "He did it so easy, I started screaming," Castellano said last week. "I was thinking about going to the Derby."
Edward Sexton, the feisty 37-year-old Irishman who manages Steinbrenner's farm in Ocala, Fla., had the same premonition when he bought Bellamy Road on April 19, 2004. Steinbrenner had given him a blank check, but Sexton needed only $87,000 to close the deal, meaning that a man who has spent more money on players than anyone in baseball history might win his first Kentucky Derby in five tries with one of the cheapest horses in the field.
3. Will the Derby drought end for one of the sport's top trainers?
Todd Pletcher, 37, oversees a far-flung stable of 155 horses and last year won the Eclipse Award as the nation's top trainer. Since leaving D. Wayne Lukas in 1996 to run his own operation, Pletcher (right) has started nine horses in the Derby and never finished better than second. In short, he's due, and Bandini, a muscular son of 2000 Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus, stands a great chance of getting Pletcher to the winner's circle. Should Bandini, who won the Blue Grass Stakes, fail to fire, Pletcher also has Lexington Stakes winner Coin Silver and Arkansas Derby runner-up Flower Alley.
Bobby Frankel, the former king of the claimers and a five-time Eclipse winner, has two seconds (including favored Empire Maker in 2003), a third and a fourth in the last five Derbys. This year he has Louisiana Derby winner High Limit.