Finding the winner of the Kentucky Derby is as difficult as finding the fastest-moving self-service mutuel line. You have to be lucky. Usually, I get behind someone who has a $3 voucher in the machine and ponders his decision like he’s reading "War and Peace." Give me the good old days, before Stevie Nicks was fat.
Recently, I was behind a guy who had a 60-cent voucher in the machine, and his finger was whirling around the display pad like he was playing pin the tail on the donkey, only the guy wasn’t blindfolded. I think he wound up punching out six 10-cent superfectas. I’m not sure, because I changed lines before he was finished.
Ah, but I digress.
The Derby is Saturday. A full field of 20 will be entered on Wednesday. Most of the runners merely will clutter the course. There are a handful of legitimate contenders. Whichever horse wins will present post-race spin doctors with their 15 minutes of fame. They will express proclivities—rightly or wrongly—on the outcome. Anyone who says he exercised poor judgement after picking a loser will be in the minority.
I did uncover Fusaichi Pegasus as the winner in 2000, and Smarty Jones three years ago, but Saturday’s task seems more daunting. Quality runs deep. But after throwing out speed horses and pretenders, that challenge diminishes.
So, in no specific order, dismiss the speed: Any Given Saturday, Hard Spun, Nobiz Like Showbiz, Stormello and Teuflesburg.
Also, say adios to pretenders Cobalt Blue, Dominican, Liquidity, Reporting for Duty, Sam P., Storm in May and Zanjero. Consider longshots Great Hunter and Tiago. Next, toss all horses ridden by California-based jockeys. Based on past results, eliminate any horse picked on top in the Racing Form.
That leaves the cream: Circular Quay, Cowtown Cat, Curlin, Scat Daddy and Street Sense.
The knock on Curlin is he never raced at age two and has had only three races, and no horse with that blight on his resume has won the Derby since Apollo (unraced at two) in 1882, and the filly Regret in 1915 (only three races). Whether Curlin wins or not, the red-boarding experts will say they told you so. Street Sense, of course, won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and no winner of that race has won the Derby.
"The media is going to play up the fact that Curlin has never won at two, but the horse is so talented, he can overcome it, if he gets the trip," said three-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert. "But if there are 20 horses and he breaks a little slow and gets slammed and gets behind horses and gets rocked around and gets beat, the media will say, ”˜See, he didn’t have the experience.’
"But you know what? Any horse that gets knocked around like that isn’t going to run well. I think Curlin has a tremendous amount of athleticism, and he’s had great trips and never got in trouble and I like the way Robby Albarado rides him. He’s never moved on him until he had to. But his races haven’t been strong races. They’re like allowance races."
Early on, I wrote that Great Hunter at 30-1 offered the best value in Future Book wagering. But his race in the Blue Grass, despite trouble, was not encouraging. Circular Quay was beaten by Great Hunter and Street Sense and has not raced since March 10, nearly two months. That presents a conundrum. Cowtown Cat had an excuse in every loss except his maiden race, in which he was beaten only a length. He will be overlooked and generously priced. Scat Daddy is consistent, courageous and a major player.
But the best horse is Street Sense. He has the style, the tenacity and the trainer who knows his way to the Derby winners’ circle in Carl Nafzger, who won the 1990 running with Unbridled. Street Sense just needs the trip.
Make it Street Sense, Curlin, Cowtown Cat and Circular Quay. Insiders tell me outsiders Great Hunter and Any Given Saturday can surprise, so include all six in a $1 trifecta box, total cost, $36.
And before I go, let me remind you of my strongest memory of a visit to Churchill Downs in 2000. It wasn’t the nostalgic tour of the track’s museum of racing, it wasn’t the welling of emotion during the playing of "My Old Kentucky Home," and it certainly wasn’t the mint juleps.
What I recall most was a sign over the drinking fountain at the track’s satellite wagering facility. It read: "Do Not Spit in the Fountain."
Now really, does anyone with any semblance of couth have to be told not to do spit in the fountain?
THE HOMESTRETCH: Good news, bad news: The good news: Joe Talamo will be the runaway leading rider at Hollywood Park, with Michael Baze second and Victor Espinoza third. The bad news: most horses Talamo rides will be overbet ”¦ Gary Stevens, who rode Winning Colors to victory against colts in the 1988 Derby, on how she differs from Rags to Riches, who passed the Run for the Roses to go against her own sex in Friday’s Kentucky Oaks: "Rags to Riches has tactical speed and she’s shown ability, but one of the things Winning Colors had going for her was her natural physique. She had the body of a colt. She was bigger than any of her competition that year and she had a real confidence about her. She definitely wasn’t intimidated by colts. She was the intimidator." ”¦ This unsolicited testimonial from former trainer and agent Chuck Marikian: "Week in and week out, your column in GamingToday is the most informative and fairest in racing." Aw, shucks.