Joe Drape picks winner in the Kentucky Derby.

May 10, 2011 6:00 AM

Some men are braver than others. Some are more skilled at their tasks. Joe Drape, the horse racing writer of the New York Times is both.

Last Friday evening, Drape was faced with the daunting task of selecting one of 19 mediocre thoroughbreds to win the sport’s biggest and best known race – the Kentucky Derby.

He knew, as did all other handicappers and racing fans in America, that the race was wide open, a Wild West affair.

Drape and his editors in the Times sports department decided to go for broke. They fashioned a big, bold virtual full front sports page with a headline stretching the entire page reading, "A Derby to be Daring."

And Drape ran down to make his pick. The Times layout made clear this was likely to be a Derby unlike most others. In a box to the left of Drape’s pick they ran the selections of three of the nation’s best handicappers – Andy Beyer of Washington Post, Ed Fontaine of the New York Post and Alicia Hughes of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald.

Their picks ran under two headlines saying "Handicappers Go Long."

Fontaine went for Brilliant Speed at 30-1 on the morning line. Hughes chose Soldat, a 12-1 outsider. Beyer picked Shackleford at 12-1. For the first mile of the Derby, it looked like Andy was right.

Next to these selections in bigger type and two columns wide was Drape’s analysis of the Derby. He started the piece by writing, "The 137th running of the Kentucky Derby presents the perfect opportunity to swing for the fences and wager on a horse with big odds."

And then he swung.

He not only made his selections, but told why (as every handicapper should do) and then went a step further.

He told how his selection would run to win the Roses and the $2 million purse. First he noted that "none of these 3-year-olds have shown they are head and shoulders above any of their rivals."

Then he wrote, "I landed on Animal Kingdom (30-1) because he is lightly raced, bred to run all day (the Derby is 1¼ miles, a tough task for a colt this early in the year) and has looked terrific in training here.

"The horse won twice and finished second twice in four career starts," he continued. "He will break from the No. 16 post position, which will keep him outside and away from the cavalry charge to the rail that occurs as the field of 19 heads into the far turn at Churchill Downs.

"Animal Kingdom will stalk the lead pack and have the first jump at the leaders when they hit the stretch and then unleash a powerful closing kick."

All this appeared in Saturday morning’s editions, a good 12 to 18 hours before the race was run.

Drape is no newcomer to the Times. He is the latest in a long line of excellent writers that include Steve Crist, now the publisher of racing’s holy bible, the Daily Racing Form.

Ironically, the Times did not mention Drape’s triumphant Saturday or at least not in the edition I read. It wasn’t exactly the Pulitzer Prize, but it was an accomplishment in its own ballpark. It was spectacular.

Joe did what he said he would do. He swung for the fence and blasted this swing out of the stadium. As one who toils in the same vineyard and knows how gutsy his homer was, I doft my hat.

It was like Babe Ruth’s mythical pointing to the stands and then smashing the next pitch there.

Way to go, Joe.