LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Four days from now, under the twin spires of Churchill Downs, an elite few will line up in the starting gate for the country's most famous race.
This will be the 127th running of the Kentucky Derby. Each year's field has its favorites and long shots. But each year the longest shot of all is merely making the field.
The roster for this year's Derby -- restricted, as always, to 3-year-olds -- comes from the estimated 36,000 thoroughbreds born in North America in 1998 and registered with The Jockey Club. The dream of running a particular foal in the Kentucky Derby is nearly always the impossible dream.
"There's one way to get here and a million ways not to," said Todd Pletcher, the trainer of Balto Star and Invisible Ink in this year's field.
Last year, in his first solo appearance at the Derby, Pletcher started four horses. Before breaking out on his own in 1996, he had worked 6 1/2 years as an assistant to D. Wayne Lukas, the trainer who's run more horses in the Derby than anyone else.
"I understand how difficult this race is not only to win, but also just to get a horse into it," Pletcher said. "Obviously, timing is everything. There's one chance in a horse's life to run in the Kentucky Derby."
Although Pletcher appreciates the difficulty of the task, his assessment of one way to get there is not altogether accurate. Or, if there is just one way, then the road goes off in 100 directions.
For instance, Pletcher didn't realize until early this year, when Balto Star started winning distance races by a dozen lengths, that he might have a Derby horse. Because Balto Star is a son of Glitterman, a sprinter, Pletcher didn't initially consider the 1 1/4 miles of the Derby within Balto Star's reach.
On the other hand, John Ward Jr., the trainer of Monarchos, a major contender in this year's race, picked him out of a sale last year with an eye toward the Derby. Other trainers start plotting their Derby paths years in advance. They consult with their owners on which mares to breed to which stallions in hopes of enhancing their long-shot chances of producing a Derby runner.
"The first thing you've got to do, whether you breed it or buy it, is have a horse with the pedigree to go a mile and a quarter when he's 3 years old on the first Saturday in May," Ward said. "Pedigree is something you can't change."
These young thoroughbreds, after running in races as long as 1 1/8 miles, must run 1 1/4 miles in the Derby for the first time.
And then, Ward said, "you have to focus on it. This is a part of racing that exists outside the scope of everything else we do. This is the game within the game."
The rules of the game often violate nature's rules, Ward said. You train a horse to run faster and farther as his body develops and matures.
"You've got forces of mother nature pulling at his metabolism for energy to grow," Ward said, "but, at the same time, you're asking him to do some of the most strenuous exercise known to man."
The horse often can't take it. Ward started the year with three Derby contenders. Two faltered. Holiday Thunder underwent ankle surgery for removal of a bone chip. Hero's Tribute simply couldn't meet the demands. Ward backed off on his training, but hopes to have him ready for the Preakness, two weeks after the Derby.
Ward had the luxury of having three potential Derby horses. If he'd had only Holiday Thunder or Hero's Tribute, he said, he'd probably have kept pressing them throughout the spring.
Instead of operating on Holiday Thunder, he said, "I'd have been injecting him [with drugs] and doing everything else I could do to get him to the race."
Asked whether getting a horse to the Kentucky Derby is the most difficult thing a trainer has to do, Ward said: "No, it's not the most difficult. But it's probably one of the most precise things you have to do.
"If you're aiming a horse for a particular race, any other race, there's always another race the next week or the week after that. But the Kentucky Derby is the bull's-eye. You have to hit it."
Of the trainers who focus on the Derby, none focuses sharper than Lukas. He has started a record 38 horses in the race and won it four times.
Asked what it takes to get a horse to the Derby -- and then win it -- Lukas said: "More than any other race in the country, the experience factor is paramount. It's easy to get caught up in what everybody else is doing and adjust your regimen. When you've been over there six or seven years, you finally say, 'Hey, I'm going to march to my own drummer.' " Lukas didn't win until his eighth Derby -- in 1988 with Winning Colors.
But the main reason experience is so important, he said, is that "you don't get a chance to practice it. There is no prep for it. There are prep races, but not at the Derby distance and Derby conditions."
Despite his vast experience, Lukas is this year's testament to the difficulty of getting a horse to the Derby. After nominating 21 horses to the Triple Crown series, Lukas has none in the Derby. His streak of running horses in 20 consecutive Derbies will end.
The longest odds
The odds of producing a winning racehorse are formidable, even for foals by the best stallions. Here are success rates for the 446,958 thoroughbred foals registered in North America from 1985-1994, compared with those by sires in the top 1 percent (according to offspring's earnings).
Accomplishment...All foals...Foals by top sires
Run in a race...68.9 percent...84.8 percent
Win a race...45.1 percent... 65.4 percent
Win more than 1 race...33.5 percent...53.3 percent
Win a stakes race...3.2 percent...9.1 percent
Win a graded stakes race...0.7 percent...3.6 percent
Win a Grade I stakes race...0.2 percent...1.2 percent
SOURCE: Jockey Club Information System