Some random observations on this year’s Kentucky Derby:
- This is one of the best “feel good” stories in a while. We have the oldest winning trainer in Derby history, who was last at the Derby when he accompanied Swaps on the train from California in 1955. Then there are the owners who turned down $6 million for a partial interest in California Chrome before the race. If that is not enough, I learned in a Teresa Genaro article in Forbes.com that jockey Victor Espinoza donates ten per cent of all his earnings to fight cancer in children. The reason? He visited a pediatric cancer facility and could not go back because he would just cry.
- Can Chrome capture the Crown? That is always the single question of those who do not follow the sport closely. I thought he was the best three-year old colt before the race, and he was clearly the best afterwards. I thought the last four Derby winners could do it, and before Mine That Bird, I thought the preceding three could. That makes me 1 for 8 on that prediction, so I am not going to jinx this one.
- Will a Triple Crown winner save racing? This is one of those saws that I think is totally devoid of merit. A Triple Crown winner will undoubtedly result in an uptick in interest whenever he races, but that is about it. But that general topic is for another day.
- How has this guy never seen a horse race? I saw a friend from Boston the other day who watched his first Derby ever. He is a sports nut, 50 years old, and had never seen a Derby. We have known each other for years, he knows of my interest, yet he had never seen a horse race. (It’s not to my credit, by the way, that I never thought to encourage him.)
- Dallas Stewart ties Todd Pletcher for second-place finishers in Derby. I have lost track of how many horses Pletcher has started in the Derby – I think it is 41, but only two seconds to go with a single win. Stewart has had bombers finish in the place spot the last two years. Last year it was Golden Soul at 35-1, followed by Commanding Curves at 38-1. How has Golden Soul fared since then? His highest placing has been a fifth in a six-horse field, beaten by 24 1/4 lengths. His closest finish was a 7-length loss in an allowance race.
- The public was remarkably accurate in assessing the merits of Derby entrants. Only five of the 19-horse field finished in a position significantly different from their betting odds: Commanding Curve, second at 38-1; Intense Holiday, twelfth at 14-1; Candy Boy, thirteenth at 9-1; Wildcat Red, eighteenth at 19-1 and Vicar’s in Trouble, last at 20-1.
- Why are only two Derby horses considering the Preakness? California Chrome was impressive, but it wasn’t exactly Secretariat’s Belmont. He got an absolutely perfect trip, running just where he wanted to be, and did not even sniff trouble. I cannot recall a year, particularly in this day of 20-horse fields, when only two were willing to return at Pimlico. It is, after all, a Classic. It says a lot about the way horses are now trained – or, perhaps, it is a function of how they are bred. One of the reasons I liked Chrome in the Derby is precisely because he was not lightly raced. His ten starts were the highest of any entrant.
- How does a cat handicap the Derby better than I do? For those not familiar with my Blue Ribbon analysis of the Triple Crown races (on the Horse Racing page), I have been doing it for over 20 years now. One of my cats is named Barton, after the first Triple Crown winner. (The other is named Fager.) One year, Barton grabbed a bunch of losing tickets from atop my dresser and scattered them across the bed, as though he were rebuking my handicapping prowess. As I started working on the year’s Derby analysis, he began knocking a “New York-bred” refrigerator magnet down. So I decided to add a segment on the cat’s selection. That was the year Funny Cide won. He continued knocking the magnet down before the Preakness. He hasn’t done it since. In subsequent years, I would note when he would display interest in a particular horse about whom I would be writing. While he has had some success since Funny Cide, nothing came close to this year. He climbed up on my lap and purring loudly as I wrote about California Chrome and Commanding Curve, an exacta that returned $340. Of the thirty or so public handicappers I surveyed, not a single one had Commanding Curve among the top selections.