Being America’s race,
Derby fever strikes us all

Mar 12, 2007 11:38 PM

P.T. Barnum would have found himself bored hawking the Kentucky Derby. It needs no self promotion. It sells itself. The Kentucky Derby is an event like no other. They open the doors and 100,000 people show up.

It is unique in its ubiquity. It happens only once a year. It lasts only two minutes. And once a horse runs in it, he or she can never run in it again. The exclusivity causes horsemen grow rapt in its reverie.

Despite its restrictiveness, it has permeated the mainstream. "Ain’t nobody not heard of the Kentucky Derby."

Chris McCarron once said strangers would stop him when he was walking through an airport. The first thing they’d ask was, "Are you a jockey?" The second was, "Have you ever won the Kentucky Derby?"

He did, of course, on Alysheba in 1987 and on Go For Gin in 1994.

McCarron retired five years ago, but the Kentucky Derby lives ever on, luring jockeys, trainers, owners et al to a beacon that shines for all to see on the first Saturday in May.

This year, it will be May 5, at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, where the storied classic at 1¼ miles will be decided for the 138th time. With nine weeks till race time, any horseman with a 3-year-old that can out-foot a cow is eligible to be smitten with "Derby Fever."

One such dude is Bob Baffert, but make no mistake: when it comes to the Run for the Roses, as the Derby also is known, Baffert knows how to separate pretenders from contenders. The 54-year-old trainer has won the Derby three times, and should have won it a fourth, if Grindstone hadn’t hung a nose defeat on Cavonnier (and McCarron) in 1996, a loss that stings Baffert to this day.

But that’s ancient history. Baffert is culling through his current 3-year-olds in attempt to have them put their best foot forward. That hasn’t kept him from keeping an astute eye on the opposition, which is plentiful. Among the most prominent are Great Hunter, winner of Santa Anita’s Robert B. Lewis Stakes, and Scat Daddy, Stormello and Nobiz Like Showbiz, who finished within a half-length of one another in Gulfstream Park’s Fountain of Youth Stakes. Scat Daddy, trained by Todd Pletcher, got up in the very last stride to nail pace-setting Stormello and Kent Desormeaux by a nose, while Nobiz Like Showbiz, tagged by some as the early Derby favorite, was a half-length back in third as the 3-5 betting choice.

And then there’s Circular Quay (pronounced "key"). The Louisiana Derby winner is one of a barnful of Todd Pletcher monsters. The son of 1995 Kentucky Derby winner Thunder Gulch powered from last to win the New Orleans race in hand by 2 1/4 lengths. If he’s not the Derby favorite now in anybody else’s Future Book, he is in mine.

"Great Hunter was pretty impressive and Stormello was pretty impressive, too," Baffert said.. "Nobiz Like Showbiz laid an egg, but it’s OK to lay an egg now. It’s still early. When you’re trying to find a horse’s running style to go a mile and a quarter, sometimes you take them back and they did that with Nobiz Like Showbiz, but he resented it and wanted to get going.

"But you learn from your losses. You can’t expect to win them all going in (to the Kentucky Derby). Every other horse in the Fountain of Youth ran as expected, but Nobiz Like Showbiz just didn’t run his race. He’s still a good horse, but he didn’t like being back there. I think he wanted to be on the pace. You learn from that."

Still, one top Southern California trainer discerned an assailable trait in Nobiz Like Showbiz. "He lugs in every race," the trainer said. "In a 20-horse field like the Derby, a horse won’t be able to do that and win." Maybe that’s why trainer Barclay Tagg decided to add blinkers after the Fountain of Youth.

Baffert, meanwhile, was willing to give the horse a free pass.

"As long as you’re running one, two, three in these prep races, you’re in the show," Baffert said. "When you throw in that seventh or eighth, then you’re out."

The homestretch

”¡ Don’t waste any Kentucky Derby Future Book investments in Belgravia. Trainer Patrick Biancone said he won’t make the race.

”¡ Todd Pletcher says Circular Quay came out of smashing Louisiana Derby win well, "and we’re probably going to run in the Wood Memorial (at Aqueduct on April 7), but we won’t make that decision for a couple of weeks."

”¡ Jockey David Flores and trainer John Sadler will answer questions and autograph pictures at the Orleans race book, 9 a.m. Monday, April 16. Ralph Siraco hosts.

”¡ Gas prices in LA jumped 40 cents last week. According to the Los Angeles Times, "fuel experts blamed the surge on refinery and pipeline problems, strong oil prices, unusually high driver demand and the tricky annual change to less-polluting summer gasoline." Or, in a word, greed.