Skill, planning doesn’t beat
luck in Kentucky Derby

Mar 27, 2007 8:15 AM

"Chance governs all," Milton said in Paradise Lost.

Milton was ahead of his time, because he wrote that in 1667. When it comes to horses, luck doesn’t dictate the outcome of every race, but it never hurts to have it, and never more than when it comes to the Kentucky Derby.

Rich men and kings have planned and schemed with diligence to win the world’s most famous race, but pluck is powerless without luck. Just ask some of the men who have won it, or some of those who would like to win it.

They would include Ron Anderson, jockey agent par excellence who represented seven-time Eclipse Award winner Jerry Bailey for more than six years, and who currently is on top of the world with money leader Garrett Gomez and his capable sidekick, Richard Migliore, who is hardly chopped liver. Gomez has been up the track in three Derby tries, finishing seventh on Southern Rhythm in 1994, 13th on Dazzling Falls in 1995 and 17th on Bob and John last year.

Five weeks out until the 138th Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs, Anderson and Gomez were playing their cards deftly without going all in, trying to land on the winning horse come May 5.

Anderson, a Las Vegas native and thus familiar with the vital role of luck, hopes to make all the correct tactical and political moves. He is first to admit, however, that without a serendipitous stroke, planning is as useful as a boycott against the gas companies.

"Thunder Gulch was my first Derby winner (in 1995 for D. Wayne Lukas)," Anderson said. "I was in Hong Kong with Gary Stevens. Larry the Legend won the Santa Anita Derby, but got hurt. Mike Smith was deciding on Thunder Gulch or another horse. He couldn’t ride Thunder Gulch, so Wayne called us when he learned Larry the Legend was hurt, and we ended up on Thunder Gulch and won the Derby.

"In 1997, we got on Silver Charm when Scotty (McClellan, then agent for Chris McCarron) had to make a choice between Hello and Silver Charm. He went with Hello for Ron McAnally and (Bob) Baffert put us on Silver Charm. We stayed on him and almost won a Triple Crown.

"Jerry Bailey won the Coolmore Lexington on Charismatic (in 1999) at Keeneland, but he hung up Lukas for three days making up his mind on a Derby horse. I had Chris Antley then. I told the Lewises (owners Bob and Beverly) that Chris would be fine on the horse, they put him on, and he almost won the Triple Crown.

"A lot of luck is involved. You get stuck on horses for political reasons and that leaves others open, and sometimes they win. I could have been on War Emblem (with Bailey in 2002), but got hung up on another horse and gave War Emblem to somebody else, and War Emblem ended up winning. With 20 horses in the Derby, you’ve got to be lucky no matter who you are."

Anderson had committed Gomez to Ravel for the Santa Anita Derby, but the Sham Stakes winner suffered an injury to his left cannon bone last week and will be out at least 60 days, according to Todd Pletcher.

Gomez, Santa Anita’s runaway leader this meet who will ride regularly at Keeneland when that session starts early next month, is in great demand and virtually has his pick of Pletcher’s arsenal of Triple Crown prospects. Eventually, Gomez and Anderson will have to commit, right or wrong.

"It’s a predicament you hate to be in, but we’re lucky enough to be able to make those decisions," Gomez said. "We’re grateful to be in that spot. We hate to make those decisions, but it’s good to be in that situation. It’s a difficult spot to pick and choose, because it’s so early, but it will work its way out."

At press time, Gomez was sitting on at least two Derby contenders. John Velazquez had three, and Corey Nakatani two.

As good as those riders are, they can’t ride two horses in the same race. Something must open up.

"The Derby is the pinnacle race in a jockey’s career, but it’s a long ways away," Gomez said. "These prep races are great to win. A couple years ago, I thought it’d be nice to win the Blue Grass, and I had won the Arkansas Derby and the Wood Memorial. We’ve been fortunate enough to win those races, but now they’re just another race to win. The Kentucky Derby is THE race and hopefully, it will be this year.

"We’re riding for the right people and all we can do is what we can do. If it’s time, it’s time. If not, we’ll try again next year."

The homestretch

”¡ After 73 years, Bay Meadows will close by the end of 2007. The Bay Area track sought a two-year extension on the California Horse Racing Board’s mandate to install a synthetic surface on its main track by the end of this year, but the CHRB, by a 4-2 vote, denied the request.

The Bay Meadows Land Co., which owns Bay Meadows, has said it intended to close the track in the near future for real estate development.

Rather than spend an estimated $8 million to install a synthetic surface for the short term, Bay Meadows opted not to comply, forcing the CHRB’s hand.

Bay Meadows’ more than 100 racing dates will be up for grabs.

”¡ Add News You Can Bet On: I wrote over a month ago that Patrick Valenzuela would miss the entire Santa Anita meet. He will.

”¡ Maybe it’s best Bob Baffert won’t have a Kentucky Derby starter this year, what with the Queen scheduled to attend.

I can’t imagine him bowing to Her Highness in the winners’ circle, but I could see him putting the trophy on her head.