It’s hot – but not too hot – and humid – but not too humid – here as 150,000 people make their way toward Churchill Downs, where the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby will take place at about 6:30 tonight.
Hard rain fell overnight, leaving the track sloppy in the morning and preventing any of the Derby’s 20 contestants from going to the track (it has since been upgraded all the way up to fast). Graham Motion, the Fair Hill trainer who won the Derby last year with Animal Kingdom, had told me he hoped to take Went the Day Well out there.
- Pictures: Celebrities at the Kentucky Derby
- Kentucky Derby picks: Keep your eye on late-charging Dullahan
- Bodemeister, Baffert look to pull off rare feat in Kentucky Derby
- Preakness Stakes 2014 [Pictures]
- Preakness 2014 infield pictures and photos of the party scene
- Preakness week 2014 [Pictures]
See more photos »
- 2014 Preakness
“At this point in the week,” he said early Friday morning, “everybody just has so much pent up energy. There’s so much anticipation. You’re building until the race. But at the same time you have ot sit and wait. I’d prefer to get the horse out there, let him run it out a bit.”
That’s something unique about the Kentucky Derby. Usually a trainer has many horses to think about. Jockeys can ride seven or eight or nine horses during a day of racing. They rarely think about one horse and one race the way they do the Derby.
Sheldon Russell, the 24-year-old who currently rides in Maryland, was only able to pick up a few rides at Churchill Downs this week. He’d hoped for more.
“I’ve never gone this long without riding on a daily basis,” he said.
Russell has much to gain this week. Like many top jockeys whose careers bloomed in Maryland – such as Oaks winner Rosie Napravnik, or Kent Desormeaux, who will ride Dullahan in the Derby – he will eventually move to more competitive tracks to fight for more lucrative payouts.
Today he’ll get a good sense of how he compares. Already this week he’s had a chance to meet many of the legends in his business – including Jerry Bailey -- and to spend time with those at the top of the field now.
Now, to the race: For up-to-the-minute odds, go here.
When asked for my pick, I went with Hansen. There are major questions about his ability to handle the mile and a quarter distance, but I think his post position – he’ll start from No. 14 – gives him a chance to stay outside of the early frenzy that will develop around the two favorites – Bodemeister and Union Rags – leaving from the sixth and fourth posts, respectively. Hansen has shown he can hold back when needed, and my thought is that he’ll have more in reserve than he did last year when he was almost caught by Union Rags in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile here.
Our official handicapper, Liam Durbin, offers his thoughts here.
As you prepare for the most exciting two minutes in sports, here are a few stories from us you may have missed this week:
Union Rags is a horse right out of a dream. But he's lost his two biggest races and faces questions about his ability to run through trouble.
Bodemeister is a special horse for trainer Bob Baffert, who suffered a heart attack while in Dubai in late March. The horse is named for his son, Bode, and offers him another good chance to win his fourth Derby; he hasn't taken the roses since 2002. But Bodemeister went un-raced last year, and no colt who went did so as a 2-year-old has won the Derby since 1882. Yes. 1882.
Hammy Smith has trained horses for 36 years, the last 30 or so spent mostly in Maryland. The Laurel-based trainer will have his first Triple Crown starter today, finally, and he has his brother Frank and a couple of local owners -- childhood friends who went to Atholton -- to thank.
Rosie Napravnik, who went to Hereford High and was a top jockey in Maryland, became the first woman to win the Oaks on Friday. She's not riding this year, but she's going to have many chances to duplicate the feat in the Derby.
Othere interesting reads on today’s race can be found here:
- Rick Bozich of The Courier-Journal reminds us of how little anybody knows when it comes to predicting the winner of a big horse race.
- Yahoo's Pat Forde explains the process of going from 36,850 foals -- the number born in 2009 -- to the 20 who will race today. Makes you understand what these owners, trainers and jockeys go through.
- Not to be a total drag on a day like this, but here's a clear-eyed, wholistic look at horse racing today from the Atlantic. Bottom line: it's not in good shape.
And if you’re looking for some heavier reading leading up to the Derby, here are a few suggestions. In its heyday, horse racing drew many of this country’s very best writers:
- Here's a PDF version of "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved," by the great Hunter S. Thompson. It's got foul language, and it pobably doesn't totally capture the experience of being here in 2012 -- or of anybody's reality, really, other than Mr. Thompson's -- but they'll read it long after you and are gone.
- No story explains the world of horse racing better than Pure Heart, by William Nack. To many, horse racing is significant for a month each year as a group of 3-year-olds chases the roses and then one of them gets a chance at the Triple Crown. But if you want to know how the whole thing feels -- how it is to have a colt and have him grow so strong and fast and then to see him stud and eventually die -- this is the best place to go.
Now, a few notes of interest about two of the horses we haven’t talked about much here:
- Take Charge Indy has been overlooked, despite winning the Florida Derby. As I’ve written elsewhere, most handicappers have dismissed that race because of the way Union Rags, the heavy favorite, appeared to be targeted by other horses (including El Padrino.) But Calvin Borel, who has won the Derby three times (in nine mounts), will take the colt out from the No. 3 position. He’ll handle the early traffic well, if history serves.
- Daddy Long Legs drew the unfavorable first post position, and his trainer, Aiden O’Brien, didn’t make the race. But it would probably be foolish to not at least acknowledge the Irish colt trained by one of most talented horsemen in the world. Daddy Long Legs finished 12th out of 13 at last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile here, and nine horses from that race will go off in the Derby. But Daddy Long Legs had an outside post in that race, and broke poorly from the gate. He’s been schooled with an American gate and O'Brien does like him (but he also has a favorite in the 2000 Guineas back home. “He’s not here for the good of his health, you know,” assistant trainer T.J. Comerford told The Courier-Journal.