“A difference of opinion is what makes horse racing and missionaries.” – Will Rogers
One of my favorite quotes about thoroughbred racing has never seemed more appropriate than this spring, when the road to Kentucky Derby 137 at Churchill Downs has been littered with enough potholes, sharp turns and unforeseen obstacles than any in memory.
A Sherpa guide would have come in handy for those attempting to navigate the road to the big race beneath the Twin Spires.
Ascending the Himalayas? No problem.
Getting to Churchill Downs for Derby 137 unscathed without more than a few dents in your armor?
Uncle Mo was the overwhelming favorite in this race and presumed by many as a better bet to win the Derby than Prince William is to be king of England one day. But then came the Wood Memorial, and we were reminded again that day of the most basic rule of the sport of thoroughbred racing: There is a reason we run these races.
When the starting gate opens, the playing field is leveled and the results in any race – be it the fifth race on Thursday or the greatest race on the first Saturday in May – are uncertain and yet to be determined.
Uncle Mo could not have had an easier journey in the 1 1/8 mile Wood Memorial – at least, for the first mile. He cruised along in modest fractions and fans waited for jockey John Velazquez to push the accelerator as the field rounded the far turn. But when Johnny V said “go,” Uncle Mo said “no.”
He ran third behind an emerging 3-year-old named Toby’s Corner and immediately the presumptive Derby winner went from hero to near zero.
Questions about his ability to handle the Derby’s daunting mile and a quarter quickly started flying, then trainer Todd Pletcher and owner Mike Repole revealed that the reigning 2-year-old champion had suffered from an inflammation in his gastrointestinal tract that could have had something to do with his surprising setback.
He has been treated with antibiotics and has missed little training. But, for skeptics, one wonders whether Uncle Mo – even if he could handle the Derby distance – has hit a few too many potholes late in the road to Derby 137 to be able to get the job done in the Run for the Roses.
And, if not Uncle Mo, who will be the star of the show in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands?
That is quite a question.
In all my years of working at the Kentucky Derby as a journalist and, since 1997, as a member of the Churchill Downs team, I have never witnessed such a wide-open group of contenders. A look at the past performances from this group makes the job of settling on a potential winner all the more daunting and perilous.
The winners of the last four Grade I Kentucky Derby prep races averaged a winning payout of nearly $36 on a $2 win bet.
One can make a realistic case that at least half the field, and perhaps more, has a realistic chance to win.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is a horse race. Which is what the Derby should be.
If Uncle Mo should somehow return to form for Saturday’s race, he would be tough to beat. He was brilliantly fast at 2, and devotees of speed figures will tell you that his races at 2 were fast enough to win most Kentucky Derbies. But doubters always wondered if the son of Indian Charlie had what it takes to win at the Derby’s mile and a quarter, a distance no 3-year-old in this field has traveled.
There’s much to consider over the next few days, and there will be much to discuss when the race is over. Good luck on your search for a winner. Here’s a bottom-to-top look at one man’s conclusion a couple of days before Wednesday’s official entries.
From bottom to top
20. Comma to the Top – Jockey Pat Valenzuela still gets ‘em out of the gate like few other riders, but the pace should be strong and the distance looks too long for this talented multiple stakes winner.
19. Watch Me Go – Tampa Bay Derby winner ran poorly against a soft field in the Illinois Derby and seems to be in over his head.
18. Derby Kitten – Owner Ken Ramsey’s ultimate dream is to win the Kentucky Derby, but this improving, last-second addition to the field is not the one to deliver the roses.
17. Santiva – The winner of last fall’s Kentucky Derby Jockey Club comes off a trouble-plagued poor run in the Toyota Blue Grass. He’s had only one decent race in five months, and that’s not enough to get it done on Derby Day.
16. Brilliant Speed – Won the Blue Grass, which has meant little since Keeneland went to Polytrack, but was beaten by more than 40 lengths in his two races on actual dirt.
15. Stay Thirsty – The stablemate of Uncle Mo has not yet shown he can play at the top level. The most demanding race of his life is a tough place to deliver that message.
14. Twinspired – One of the most magical names in Derby history carries the hopes of a Louisvllle-based group of owners. His best efforts have come over synthetic tracks, but I won’t be surprised if this one outruns his long odds.
13. Animal Kingdom – He’s never run on dirt, but he could be a major player if he handles the surface. He has the speed to be in a very good position when they turn for home.
12. Decisive Moment – No horse in Derby 137 has worked or trained better at Churchill Downs, but he must show he is fast enough and can run long enough.
11. Shackleford – The hope of Louisville-born trainer Dale Romans has trained well, but is a speed-horse in a race that figures to have a contested and strong pace.
10. Pants On Fire – The Louisiana Derby winner looks great on the track at Churchill and has a sneaky good pedigree. Up-and-coming Rosie Napravnik has a shot aboard this sleeper to become the first female jockey to win America’s greatest race.
9. Master of Hounds – An Irish hope that has the potential to finish much higher than the middle of the field. Jockey Garrett Gomez is among the best of Americans riders, but I can’t help but wonder what Derby magic Calvin Borel might have conjured aboard this one.
8. Twice the Appeal – Without Borel, he’s 60-1 at post time. With Calvin up, he’s 20-1 – and will not be a surprise if he outruns even the lower price. Such is the Derby power of Calvin Borel.
7. Midnight Interlude – Light on experience but high on upside for Baffert. He didn’t race at 2, and the last horse to win the Derby without juvenile racing was Apollo in 1882. There’s history to overcome, but he’s a player.
6. Uncle Mo – He could step into a phone booth and emerge with his old “Super Mo” logo on his chest, but I don’t like much that has happened with this talented colt in the last four weeks.
5. Archarcharch – From the sire that brought us Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Blame, a stretch-running colt with a chance to win for veteran trainer Jinx Fires.
4. Mucho Macho Man – Has good tactical speed that should put him in position to win. Think he’ll give trainer Kathy Ritvo a thrill by poking his head in front somewhere in the homestretch. He might give her a bigger thrill at the finish.
3. Nehro – He has only one career win, but his impressive stretch runs in Arkansas and Louisina have many thinking he’ll be hard to hold off at 1 1/4 miles.
2. Soldat – Throw out his poor Florida Derby and his odds in this Derby are single digits. He has good tactical speed and the ability for a turnaround that could give Lexington native Kiaran McLaughlin his first training win in the Derby. He should be in striking position every step of the way – and his chances improve if the track is wet.
1. Dialed In – Perhaps the best-looking member of this crop has done nothing wrong in winning three-of-four career starts. The Nick Zito-trainee should get the pace he needs to set up his furious late charge. His last two wins have come over speed-favoring tracks, but that should not be a problem over Churchill’s usually fair-and-balanced surface, but traffic woes in a 20-horse field could be his downfall.
This is a wonderful colt whose biggest problem appears to be that late-charging running style. But jockey Julien Leparoux, the French import who is not a regular atop the Churchill Downs jockey standings, is at his best on this type of horse.
Despite the concerns over style and field size, he ends up as my top choice. In my first stab at this list, Toby’s Corner topped the group, but he suffered an unfortunate, though apparently minor, injury on Tuesday morning.
It’s a tough, tough thing to get to the Kentucky Derby, even when all appears to be going well in the final days before the race.
Dialed In might be compromised by running style, but he has overcome obstacles in each of his three career wins. His inexperience and bad racing luck in his November debut at Churchill Downs could not prevent him from winning. He defied speed-favoring tracks to win both the Holy Bull and Florida Derby in last-to-first performances.
But Derby 137 should set up for his running style, and he has the pedigree, trainer and rider to win the race. All he needs is some luck.
But that’s the case in every Derby.
photos by Gary Jones and Amber Chafflin