There Can Only Be One: Derby

4 05 2008

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!




14 responses

4 05 2008
belmont stakes | Hottags

[…] THE DerbyThe Kentucky Derby represents the most famous day in US 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, …With Malice… – […]

4 05 2008
triple crown winners | Lasts information

[…] THE DerbyIt’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 …With Malice… – […]

4 05 2008
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4 05 2008
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[…] searching for glory. The Kentucky Derby represents the most famous day in U.S. thoroughbred ra Remembers ‘My Guy Barbaro’ NPRWeekend Edition Saturday , May 3, 2008 ? For jockey Edgar […]

4 05 2008

Great post. Don’t tell me I am going to start reading sports blogs! That makes you want to be a part of it. Thanks

4 05 2008

A twenty-horse pack! Bound to be exciting.

I know it’s all over and done, but I’m just getting to my recreational blog reading now and I knew I could count on with-malice and theaspiringhorseplayer to give me my fix. Now I’m off to see who won.

4 05 2008

Big Brown, huh?

4 05 2008
Kevin Stafford

Big Brown looked absolutely incredible. Sadly, the second place finisher was the amazing filly Eight Belles, who was put down after suffering horrific injuries to both front legs after the race.

Big Brown should be a lock for the Preakness – there’s nothing that can stop him there in 2 weeks. The big test will be the Belmont, which is 1 1/2 miles. Smarty Jones, War Emblem, Funny Cide, Curlin – the list of super-horses that have missed at Belmont after the grueling first 2 legs is filled with horses of equal or greater talent. What’s really going to help Big Brown though is that he seems head and shoulders above his competition – there’s no one even close.

Maybe he can be the first Triple Crown winner in 30 years? Such an accomplishment would help ease the pain of the tragedy we beheld today.

RIP Eight Belles – she fought her heart out and literrally left it all on the track. We’ll miss you dearly.

5 05 2008

i actually read the whole thing, kstafford! my first thoroughbred racing article. 😀 i didn’t understand some parts, but maybe i’ll pick it up as i read more in future. 😉

omg my first thoroughbred racing article and i learn about horses being put down because of major injuries suffered from the race. 😦

5 05 2008

I wonder if this might be the only fatality in Derby history? If nothing else, I think it shows the wisdom of racing later like Big Brown, rather than putting too much stress on a two-year-old.

5 05 2008

Really a lil’ bit saddening tho’, huh?

5 05 2008

i’m not familiar with horse racing, but the fact that an animal got euthanized because of an injury is pretty bad.. i’m an animal lover and it’s really sad to see and animal die because of a sports injury..

7 05 2008
Kevin Stafford

Yeah, I’m still busted up about it myself. Needless to say, many people are inspired by the horses and love them very deeply, so losing one is a particularly painful ordeal. The great Ruffian came to mind instantly (she collapsed during a match race at Belmont Park and is widely considered the best filly, and in some cases the best race horse of all time). Sadly, with such fragile athletes, injuries are no stranger to this sport. With Eight Belles the problem was that she injured both front legs and had nothing to stand on. The only humane thing to do was to put her down so that she didn’t experience agony as her adrenaline wore off.

Their will be a necropsy to determine what the cause of her injury was. Many folks I know are whispering that she may have had a cardiac arrest. The most heartbreaking thing about it is that she was finished the race. It was over. Another step or two and she’s stopped.

I’m a diehard horse racing fan and always will be (obviously), but I do think that this tragedy can be a clarion call for some sweeping changes that are needed for the game. I don’t lie and try to paint a false pretty picture – there are things that deeply trouble me about the game that I’d like to see changed. My hope is that this can be the catalyst for some of those changes.

I don’t like seeing horses whipped (even lightly), I can’t stand the fact that some horses are drugged, or even abused. It does happen. Sadly, this tends to negate the work done by folks who are good people and truly care about their horses. In recent days I’ve even come under attack just for being a fan. You know how folks can be – no one can resist the urge to pass judgement on someone – especially if pseudo-anonymously on the internet. Far easier to make broad sweeping and dehumanizing speculations about folks. It’s really quite heart breaking.

If you’re interested, I have a host of ideas for improving the sport, as well as links back to places where you can actually do some good by engaging in dialogue with the folks that run the sport (for once in my life they actually seem to be open to criticism and suggestions – it’s about darned time). There are also links back to thoroughbred rescue programs and other noble charities.

One of my regular readers inspired me to act on this with the simple phrase “sometimes good things can come out of tragedy” – which is what I continue to hold out hope for.

7 05 2008

Kevin, very impressed with your comments. I have tried to keep an open mind about horse racing but have never been able to watch it because of the potential for situations like what happened on Saturday. Since that time, I’ve found myself wanting to post some highly critical, inflammatory comments about horse racing but after reading your words I think I will ponder this a tad longer. I am an animal lover -as you obviously are – but have never understood why horse racing hasn’t found the same type of detractors as, say, boxing. It’s violence in a more subtle way, but the difference here is I don’t believe the horses choose to participate like boxers have the ability to. Clearly, it has been acceptable in horse racing to “lose a few” horses along the way, which makes no sense to me whatsoever. Every time a boxer dies, there are calls to end boxing. Until this past weekend – even after Barbaro – those kind of calls have been muted for the most part. However, I do believe the combination of Barbaro’s lengthy suffering followed by this weekend’s Derby has put the question front and center if this activity should be allowed to continue at all, regardless of calls for synthetic turf, shorter races, etc. I enjoyed reading your comments and get a perspective from someone who loves the horses, but loves their racing as well. We may never agree on the merit of racing, but we do agree these are magnificent animals indeed.

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