The Kentucky Derby: Why It's a Must Every Year, and Why 2010 Is No Exception

Spencer CuellarContributor IMay 1, 2010

With the prohibitive favourite Eskendereya pulled from the classic a week ago, this year’s race may prove to be one of the best ever.

How so? Well, first off, the weather looks terrible. It’ll certainly make things interesting. It only adds to the inquiry that this race may produce the longest-priced favourite in history. No favourite has ever run at lower odds than 6-1. That horse was Harlan’s Holiday, who finished seventh in 2002.

It also could be the first time that they race under the lights. Churchill Downs has newly installed lights, and if the weather does not cooperate/become decent enough in time to post, this is a possibility. However unlikely, it’s another uncommon twist that we may see today.

With all the uncertainty in almost every aspect of the race, it is setting up to be quite entertaining.

Not that it’s ever not entertaining, but this is the most exciting event in sports. It lasts for all of two whole minutes. With the challenges that potentially lie before today’s racers, it’s becoming the most anticipatory, anxious, and appealing race in recent memory.

There is no favourite now that Eskendereya has been scratched. The opening odds showed Lookin At Lucky 3-1, Sidney’s Candy 5-1, Ice Box, Devil May Care, and Awesome Act all at 10-1. Four horses opened at 50-1 long shots, including Homeboykris, in which Dodgers manager Joe Torre has a 10 percent stake.

After a shocking Friday at the stations, again, there is no favourite. And when one emerges, it could be the longest-priced ever. This field is so wide open that many genuinely believe that all 20 horses have a shot at winning.

As per usual, there are always good stories at the Derby. It’s usually the only guarantee. Regardless of the winner, the connection between horse/jockey, horse/trainer, horse/owner, and then those between the humans themselves, is very evident just within 10 seconds of the finish. As they slow past the finish line, the jockey often kisses, hugs, or pats the colt.

The owner(s) and trainer rejoice and hug and kiss one another, but the most telling is that of the jockey and the horse. Jockeys ride so many horses that while I’m sure they can form bonds with all of them, it’s not as though they are extremely close and all that used to their Derby horse.

Yet by winning this race, there is no prerequisite or necessity for a long relationship. You’ve just won the Kentucky Derby. Clearly you are a great jockey and the horse is great, too. By going through it together, that’s all the bond that is needed. And that’s what you see when the winner has crossed the finish line.

It happens once a year and is the most difficult and competitive race to win annually. That is why praise is deserved for the jockey, trainer, and owner. That is also why you see the joy that you do on their faces and in their reactions.

Oftentimes, someone related to the horse has had very rough times in their life, and it has come back around to a Derby win. These are the good stories I am speaking of.

The emotion of being at the highest of highs after being pretty low not too long ago is what you see. Reflection. Appreciation. Love. Everything, really, which they’ve made this horse of with their team. They all have reached this as one; together.

In 2008, there was tons of emotion. Perhaps some of the most in a single Derby ever. Big Brown entered a huge favourite and didn’t disappoint. Brown’s trainer, Rick Dutrow Jr., at one point in his life had been at about rock bottom.

His extensive partying and gambling drove him to this point. At its worst, his girlfriend and the mother of his daughter Molly, was murdered by two people she had been involved with in drug dealings.

Rick then took Molly and they lived in a 12-by-12-foot office in a barn. As he cleaned up a bit, his career blossomed as someone took a chance on him due to his knowledge, experience, and legacy.

By the end of the Derby and Preakness, Big Brown had convinced many he’d be the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed 30 years earlier. He then got a slight injury that his team denied, and it proved to be costly, as he finished ninth (last) in the Belmont. The first and only Triple Crown hopeful to ever do so.

And who could forget Eight Belles? The filly finished second after proving the confident supporters right but then collapsed after fracturing both ankles. She was euthanized on the spot. It is believed to be the first and only fatality in Derby history.

You can’t get two stronger, more opposing emotions than what was felt two years ago. I do not know if today will prove similar, but there will certainly be high levels of emotion. Here’s hoping it’s fortunate and safe, and all positive.

On to the horses:

After early betting yesterday, Super Saver was the odds on favourite at 7-1 (which would make him the longest-priced ever if it sticks). And only one other horse was below double digits: Lookin At Lucky was 9-1.

Four followed at 11-1: Ice Box, Paddy O’Prado, Devil May Care, and Sidney’s Candy. The long shot was Discreetly Mine at 41-1.

Anything can happen, really. In recent years we have seen Street Sense, in 2007, pay off as the highest-priced winning favourite in Derby history. In 2008, there was redemption and then inspiration followed shortly by tragedy. Last year, Mine That Bird had the longest margin of victory in over 60 years, and he was also the longest-odds horse to win the Derby in over 85 years.

Will any recent history be repeated or beaten? I see no reason as to why not, except maybe the weather. Anyway, it’s set up to be a fantastic race.

At first glance, my pick was Sidney’s Candy. I have since then changed my mind. I will make my pick later.

There are, as always, many returnees to the Derby. A three-time winner and most recently in 2008 aboard Big Brown, Kent Desormeaux is in position 10 on Paddy O’Prado.

Mike Smith rode 50-1 longshot Giacomo to Derby glory in 2005. He’s on Jackson Bend in position 13.

Joseph Talamo, a 20-year-old jockey, was supposed to make his Derby debut last year aboard I Want Revenge. Entering as the favourite, he was scratched, and Talamo’s young dream had to wait another year. In the past he has said that if he wins the Derby, he will donate a quarter of his earnings to the Children’s Hospital of New Orleans. He’s on one of the favourites, Sidney’s Candy, in position 20.

Rafael Bejarano has dominated California the past two years. He is the highest earner this season, too. He is on Line of David in position five.

Calvin Borel won the Derby in 2007 and last year. He is aboard yesterday’s favourite Super Saver in position four.

As for trainers: Rick Dutrow Jr. has Joe Torre’s Homeboykris in position 19.

Nick Zito, ’91 and ’94 winner, has two horses this year. Ice Box in position two and Jackson bend in position 13.

Bob Baffert, winner of the ’97, ’98, and ’02 Derbies, also has a pair. Lookin At Lucky in position one and Conveyance in position 12.

Todd Pletcher has perhaps his best shot to win a Derby even though he lost the only prohibitive favourite in Eskendereya. He’s still got four horses running. They are Super Saver in position four, Devil May Care in 11, Mission Impazible in 14, and next to him in 15 is Discreetly Mine.

Regardless of your rooting interest or lack thereof in total of the sport, watch it. Indulge in it. I do. I take full advantage of it all. I get really into it this time of year. As Santa Anita near my house is closing, I become more interested because the really big races are coming up.

Watch the two-plus hour pre-race show. Watch the 45-minute post-race show. Listen to the analysis and handicapping. Be touched by or make a connection with the feel good story of this year’s race.

I watch it all. I watch the race, and the preview and summaries of the Preakness and Belmont Stakes as well. It’s like the Olympics or World Cup. It happens so rarely that I take advantage of it while it’s here. And by the time it’s finishing, I have had my share and I am content with waiting the next year or four to experience it again in due time.

Take it all in. Admire the beautiful southern belles. More importantly their dresses, and even more so their hats. Check out the celebrities. See the real fans in the jam-packed infield.

Pay attention to the owners, trainers, and jockeys. Everyone who’s involved in a singular team striving for one goal, yet all doing it for their own personal reasons in their hearts. Reasons we’ll never know but can witness their efforts and applaud them when they’ve accomplished their dream.

The horses, too. They’re beautiful creatures. Superior athletes. Just watch. Look closely, while also taking a step back and overseeing all the beauty. When the garland of roses grace the winner and the thoroughbred stands for something more.

This card may lack star power, but that leaves it very competitive and wide open. With an added element of unpredictably poor weather, it’s bound to be even more exciting. And, of course, because all these factors are being considered, it may just happen that the favourite (currently Lookin At Lucky at 8-1 on the morning line) wins, proving it to be unpredictable in the end.

In difficult times for most, it can’t hurt to sit back, relax, and watch a great race. The atmosphere by itself can inspire and give remembrance that things are still good and better here, and that we are fortunate to be where we are.

Make a party out of it. Alcohol never hurts watching sports. You may not remember who won, but you’ll have a good time. Invite family and friends. Order pizza or barbecue. It’s going to be a great race and fun few hours. And it’s a moment that’s meant to be shared.

Todd Pletcher has done it all in this business but win the Kentucky Derby. He is the most dominant and successful trainer of the past decade. He has earned the most in that span. He won Trainer of the Year four years running from 2004 through 2007.

In the Kentucky Derby he is 0-for-24. His horses’ average place of finish is 11th. Their odds are usually pretty low to begin with. He is not to blame fully, but definitely in some part, for his failure to capture a Kentucky Derby win. It is odd and unfortunate that he has not won one yet.

In 2007, he won his first Triple Crown race with Rags to Riches at the Belmont Stakes when she became the first filly to win the race since 1905.

His best shot at winning today is Super Saver, who opened at 15-1 but rose all the way to being the favourite yesterday at 7-1. He has since slid but still remains one of the favourites and very popular among bettors and experts.

I am going to say that this is Pletcher’s year. He will finally win a Kentucky Derby today. He will end up 1-for-28, but the poor percentage won’t matter anymore.

However, I am taking the only filly in the field and not Super Saver. She, Devil May Care, sits in the middle of the 19 other boys in position 11, being jockeyed by John Velazquez.

The filly was much improved from two weekends ago to last weekend in her practice run. She is very good on sloppy ground and becoming more and more comfortable on the track.

She is undoubtedly on top of her game as she enters the Derby, and with the addition of the blinkers, even more focused and primed to make a run for the win.

Have a great First Saturday in May and enjoy the grandeur of this great American tradition of the Run for the Roses


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