I asked a noted horse-racing expert to help me out with something for the Derby, so KStafford from the excellent horse racing site THE ASPIRING HORSEPLAYER wrote this phenomenal piece. Enough of me, here’s KStafford!
They call it the “greatest two minute in sports,” and every year on the first Saturday in May the top 3 year-olds in the country arrive at Churchill Downs in Lexington, Kentucky searching for glory. The Kentucky Derby represents the most famous day in U.S. thoroughbred racing, the first leg of the famous “Triple Crown” (with the Preakness at Pimlico, and the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park representing the 2nd and 3rd legs, respectively) and to the winner go the spoils of conquest.
This Saturday will mark the 134th running of the Kentucky Derby. When the gates open at roughly 6:00 pm EST, 20 horses will be running in the biggest race of their lives, looking to add their names to the proud and storied history of the sport. The list of previous winners reads like a who’s who of horse racing history: Whirlaway, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Barbaro, and Street Sense.
Their was a time not long ago when these names were known to all. Like the great boxers of previous generations, the great thoroughbreds inspired Americans through the roaring 20’s, into the depression era, and saw us through the dark days of World War 2. Eventually the love affair with horse racing began to wear off. Other new and more accessible sports began replacing horse racing’s place among the collective unconscious. Ever since then, the sport has struggled to keep up with the times.
All it takes is one look at the Derby to see why horse racing was once so popular. The horses themselves are gorgeous. The history and tradition of the track appear majestic and inviting. The challenge of selecting a winner seems thrilling and enticing.
To see how important the Derby is in terms of horse racing prestige, consider that the third place finisher from the 2007 Kentucky Derby, Curlin, has gone on to be the champion dirt horse of both the U.S. and the World, and yet many who do not follow the game are more familiar with the name of Street Sense, who skimmed the rail from 19th to 1st under urging from jockey Calvin Borel to surge past the front running Hard Spun last year in the Derby. Curlin went on to beat Street Sense twice, in both the Preakness (in a now legendary photo finish at the wire) and the Classic, yet people only remember that Street Sense finished ahead of him in the Derby.
So why should you, the reader, care at all about what happens in the Derby? Well, put plainly, as a sports fan you are no doubt fond of courage, perseverance under pressure, and athletic skill. If you’ve ever appreciated the grace with which a point guard directs traffic on the court, or the skill with which a running back charges through a hole, then I’ve no doubt that you will appreciate the combination of beauty, raw power, and speed on display as a thoroughbred glides down the track – his eyes ablaze with the prospect of victory.
The excitement generated in picking of a winner of any horse race, let alone the Kentucky Derby, is beyond description. It’s the ultimate “high” for sports fans that like to have an opinion about everything. When the field turns for home and you glance up to see your colt charging home with everything he has, you cannot help but feel an attachment to the animal. I’ve always said it’s a bit like they way most of us hero worshiped our favorite ball players in the innocence of our youth.
It’s been 30 years since horse racing has had a Triple Crown winner. We’ve come close several times in recent years with War Emblem (2002), Funny Cide (2003), and Smarty Jones (2004) winning the first two legs before being defeated in the third. Afleet Alex (2005) was second in the Derby before coming back to win the Preakness and the Belmont. So close, yet so far away.
When the post parade ends at Churchill on Saturday, the hopes for a Triple Crown winner may well rest squarely on the shoulders of the pre-race favorite, Big Brown. The impressive colt is breaking from the extreme outside post position (#20), but has all the talent in the world within him to help overcome that obstacle. Challenging him will be 19 other horses, including worthy competitors Pyro, Colonel John, Gayego, and the filly Eight Belles. Several longer-shot horses rate a respectable chance to threaten for top honors, including Monba, Z Fortune, Court Vision, and Denis of Cork.
Personally I think you can boil the whole race down to 3 horses. Big Brown is the obvious play as the overwhelming favorite. He’s too good to blindly bet against. However, since he’s stuck on the outside you’ve got to also think about using Colonel John and Pyro.
Colonel John in particular looks to me like he might be sitting on his best race. The main knock you’ll hear against him is that he’s never run on a true dirt surface before, having been raised on the synthetic surfaces of the California racing circuit. I’m not worried about that at all. He looked magnificent in his final workout at Churchill and it should be noted that his father, Tiznow, won the 2000 Breeder’s Cup Championship over the dirt at Churchill.
Pyro is another that many have written off as “too slow”, which I feel is a huge mistake. He returns to the dirt of Churchill after a horrible showing on the synthetic track at Keeneland. I expect a return to form and a late charge at the front runners through the stretch from Pyro. He trained with Curlin earlier in the year and started his 3 year-old campaign as a force to be reckoned with. I’m expecting that Pyro will show up today and not the Pyro we saw at Keeneland.
So there you have it. By tomorrow night the world of horse racing should have a new champion from among Big Brown, Colonel John, or Pyro that is poised to take aim at a Triple Crown run. Do yourself a favor as a sports fan and make sure you at least witness the action. If nothing else, you may wind up forming a strong opinion about who should win the Preakness Stakes on May 17. Of course, you might also find yourself falling in love with the next great horse in thoroughbred racing history.
So what do you say? Why not give the sport a try? It just might wind up being 2 of the most exciting minutes you’ve ever spent in your entire life. Hurry though, for the call to mount is fast approaching.
You want more? Make sure you head over to THE ASPIRING HORSEPLAYER for your daily dose of racing knowledge!