2009 Kentucky Derby: The 135th Greatest Moment in Sports

Spencer CuellarContributor IMay 2, 2009

LOUISVILLE, KY - MAY 01:  Race fans pet the horse of a support rider prior to the 135th running of the Kentucky Oaks on May 1, 2009 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Take your Super Bowl, UEFA Champions League Final, World Series, NBA Finals, and Stanley Cup Finals Game Seven scenarios, add them up, and they do not equal the first Saturday of May; this year and every year.

With a jam-packed Saturday full of enticing games and match-ups, they all pale in comparison to one.  Heck, there is no comparison. The only other event worth consideration is the boxing match, and only because it will happen later and be a nice nightcap. 

The Bulls-Celtics Game Seven? Push it aside. The first game of Penguins-Capitals, put that along with it.  If you love baseball, there have already been 25 games this season; you’ve got 137 left.

Most people who watch the Kentucky Derby are not highly dedicated fans.  They do not follow horse’s careers and see what races they have won, done well in, or done poorly in over long periods of time.

I am not a huge fan, but when racing season comes around, I pay attention. Obviously, with the Derby, I look up news daily from Saturday night until about a week or two after the Belmont Stakes.

For mainstream fans there are three times (four including the Breeder’s Cup if they want more) they pay attention. I know there are “hardcore” fans out there that follow it like you all do football. That’s great.

I have known one person in my life that was like that.  When I was young I would go across the street to my neighbor’s house and watch him watch horse racing.  I watched the races, too, but he was elderly and he absolutely loved it. 

He always had candy, too. Jellybeans to be specific, and those were another plus, in addition to the fact I had no obligations before I was 13. I know what you’re thinking but he wasn’t a stranger; he was a sweet old man who spent his nights watching the ponies.

On to this year’s running:

The morning line favourite was I Want Revenge but after some surprise early betting Friday, Revenge stands third behind Friesan Fire, who was fifth beforehand. In second after betting closed Friday is General Quarters who was going at 20-1 prior. Dunkirk fell to fourth after being second earlier at 4-1, and is now 8-1.

Owned by Jenny Craig, ironically named Chocolate Candy rounds out the top five at 9-1, beginning the day at 20-1.  In sixth, an early favourite at 4-1, Pioneer of the Nile is at 10-1.

Preliminary betting is normally a fair representation of what will actually happen.  Before betting opened on Friday, the favourites were I Want Revenge, Dunkirk, and Pioneer of the Nile, in order; with Friesan Fire not far behind. Hold Me Back and Desert Party were the next closest but by a stretch.

When the betting was closed in the afternoon, shocking developments saw Friesan Fire, General Quarters, I Want Revenge, Dunkirk, and Pioneer of the Nile respectively as the leaders.

The shake-up is interesting in the least as I myself did not see or hear of any updates or breaking news on any of the horses that would cause major changes like those that happened.

I can but have not gone and looked at all of the horses and their histories. I do not know who has won what. I have known for a bit who the favourites are and that they have done well recently, winning their tune-ups with more than enough time to spare. I do, however, know trainers, jockeys, and some owners.

The jockey to watch is Joe Talamo who will be aboard I Want Revenge. Talamo just turned 19 years old.  He is clearly talented but can he win the big one at such a young age? People certainly think (and thought even more so earlier) his horse could.

Stewart Elliott won the Derby and the Preakness aboard Smart Jones in 2004, arguably the most likeable horse during my lifetime. Kent Desormeaux has won both as well; twice. You all remember last season when Big Brown’s shoe nearly came all the way off his hoof, Desormeaux was looking to break the 30-year curse.

Kent is a very loveable character and the joy he expressed after the Derby last year was unforgettable. Kent will be riding Hold Me Back.

And finally, Edgar Prado. Prado won the Derby in 2006 with Barbaro and also has two Belmont’s to his name, both on longshots who ended Triple Crown bids in the final leg.

Notable trainers are Nick Zito and Todd Pletcher. Zito led Da’Tara to the last Triple Crown Race: the 2008 Belmont Stakes.  Nick has two Derby’s, a Preakness, and two Belmont’s.  None of which occurred in the same year.

Pletcher is arguably the best trainer.  He won the Eclipse Top Trainer award four years in a row (‘04-‘07) and the Woody Stephens Award as Outstanding Trainer in ’98, ’02, ’05, and ’06.  Quite a mantle.

In 2006, Bluegrass Cat finished second in both the Derby and the Belmont.  In the 2007 Belmont, his filly Rags to Riches won and became the first filly to do so since 1905.

The worst positions are one through three and eighteen through twenty. The early favourites are at post 13 (Revenge), 15 (Dunkirk), and 16 (Pioneer).

Friesan is at six, Hold Me Back five, General Quarters 12, and Chocolate Candy nine. The race will be a good one, as all of them are guaranteed to be, but the starts are pretty well placed.

Friesan Fire and Hold Me Back are next to one another and near the front while the other contenders are also close but on the other end of the line; almost exactly across.

My pick is Dunkirk.  Jockeyed by Edgar Prado who I have seen many times in person at Santa Anita Park, and trained by the finest, Todd Pletcher.  He is not the favourite but he is up there; the others are aware. 

His post position of 15 is not the best place but not bad at all, and I like his name.  He is a majestic grey color and I will look for him coming around the three-quarter pole.

To place I will take I Want Revenge. I have heard the most about him and the horse I will Show.

Other than his name being the strongest, he is jockeyed by the youthful Talamo, who is just young enough to be the right amount of cocky not to understand—but appreciate the opportunity he has in front of him today. Talamo is good, and the early favourite ain’t bad either.

I have also heard a lot about Pioneer of the Nile. It is not difficult to take three overwhelming favourites, but they did fall (according to bettors—some of who do and some of who do not know anything) on Friday and they have some sudden doubters which should be noted.

Chocolate Candy is by far the prettiest horse with the cutest and most fitting name (as far as I know—I Want Revenge could show me) and he is my dark horse to Show, or better.

Other horses to watch for are the bettor favourites that emerged Friday. But for me, I will have my eyes on Hold Me Back (Desormeaux), Advice (Pletcher), and Join in the Dance and Nowhere to Hide as your long longshots that have no shot whatsoever, until of course they surprise us and come out of nowhere like Giacomo in ’05.

With a winner comes all the unrealistic and unfair expectation and attention about winning the next two.  It is funny that people always talk about the Triple Crown as that—of three. 

It should be taken as one race at a time.  It is difficult for other professional human athletes to do this, but it is certainly possible to get things right in a camp whether you’re playing baseball or volleyball, or training a boxer or a colt.

There will be no Triple Crown winner this year. While it is easy to say it, a Triple Crown winning horse is bound to come forth; we are due. However, every year there is so much conversation and almost everyone says it will happen now, “this year.”

Saying we will see it has become as cliché as predicting the Cubs will win the next World Series, which I have heard each of the last few years and expect to hear in the next couple.  And it has not and will not happen.

The closest we came was Afleet Alex who should have won and nearly threw his jockey Jeremy Rose out of his saddle when he won the second leg. Alex won the Belmont as well. That year Giacomo won the Derby as the second biggest longshot upset ever. 

The 2005 Derby and Triple Crown season should be remembered as one of the most compelling of all-time.

It will be very different from this year’s. A longshot will not win the Derby. A horse will not get as close to the Crown as Alex (third in the Derby.)  It reminds us that before you can go on, you gotta win the big one first. The excitement is booming right now; I just want to see the opening montage of the twin spires and we’ll be off.

From May to mid-June I search and wait for alerts on the Triple Crown. I watch the quick daily update on the sports news and I read a couple articles each day, too. If I am home, I go to Santa Anita Park a few times a season. 

I watch and follow the Triple Crown, the Breeder’s Cup, the Santa Anita Derby, and Sunshine Millions. I have yet to attend the latter two but see that changing real soon when I am home during their runs.

There is nothing quite like horse racing and the Kentucky Derby, and while that can be said for a few sporting events, this one truly is special and may be the most of all.

These horses are fascinating creatures. They are extremely athletic and kind. At least we think they are.

We cannot get in their heads and fully understand them and what they think, but the beauty we imagine and literally see when they run around that track is very visible.  Frantic and yes, furious at times, but there is something soothing and relaxing about the idea. 

Horse racing is a great way to come together and enjoy a show, especially when it is on the grandest stage in Louisville.

With a pre-race program that is about an hour and one-quarter long, an actual race time of about 30 minutes, and more post-race coverage for 45 minutes, this is an event.  I recommend making lunch (or ordering in), sitting down and relaxing together.

There will be severe tense reactions for a couple of minutes but that’s the fun part.

Watch the pageantry of it all. You do not have to watch all three hours but watch some pre-match, the race, and a small portion of the post-match. Admire the racetrack and Kentucky’s beautiful surroundings. 

Become jealous of the people on the inside of the track who have to stand all day with their cheap seats.  Learn of touching stories that reporters will tell of.  Look at the wonderful hats and dress of attendees, both famous and unknown. 

Watch and cheer on a horse you know nothing about for all of 120 seconds and change.  Acknowledge, congratulate, and feel great for the winning horse and his owners and trainer and jockey.  Watch as the garland of roses is placed on him and his partner.

Feel the emotion, passion, and excitement of the greatest two minutes in sport.

Note: as I am posting this, I learned that I Want Revenge has been scratched due to an ankle injury. I know Joe Talamo will be back (maybe as soon as the Preakness) in no time. Hopefully this fantastic young colt will be OK for the long term. Our thoughts are with their team and we are saddened they will not be able to participate.


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