Horse Sense

Nine things you need to know before the Kentucky Derby.

 1. Roses Are Red. But it wasn't always so: In the initial runnings of the Kentucky Derby, which dates back to 1875, the winning horse wore a blanket of white carnations -- now the symbol of victory at the Belmont Stakes. Early in the twentieth century, historians tell us, a carnation blight (or a missed delivery) forced a change of flower and hue at Churchill Downs, and the Derby has been known ever since as "The Run for the Roses." Imagine the delight of the 1914 Derby crowd when colts named Hodge and Bronzewing were surpassed in the deep stretch by a winner called Old Rosebud. By the way, the daunting mile-and-a-quarter distance of the Derby wasn't established until 1896. Before that, the race was even longer -- a mile and a half.

2. Top Jocks Prevail. The late, great Eddie Arcaro won a record five Kentucky Derbys in 21 starts, and Bill Shoemaker went four for 26, winning his last one aboard Ferdinand at the age of 54. Among current riders, Gary Stevens (who will pilot long shot Sunday Break at this year's race, on May 4) leads the pack with three Derby winners (Winning Colors in 1988, Thunder Gulch in 1995 and Silver Charm in 1997), while Eddie Delahoussaye, fellow Cajun Kent Desormeaux, Chris McCarron and Jerry Bailey have two wins each. This year, the most intriguing horse under one of these jockeys is probably Bailey's Castle Gondolfo, a brilliant Irish import who has never run in the U.S. The railbirds down in Louisville think he's a live long shot.

3. Knock on Wood. Seasoned Derby folk watch the important prep races leading up the first Saturday in May to see which three-year-olds are developing and which are regressing. The last two Kentucky Derby winners -- Fusaichi Pegasus and Monarchos -- also won the 1 1/8-mile Wood Memorial three weeks earlier in New York. But this year's daunting pre-race favorite, Harlan's Holiday (six wins and four places in ten starts; $1.46 million in earnings) instead ran in another key prep, the Blue Grass Stakes, 75 miles up the road from Churchill Downs at Keeneland. He won it by an easy 4 1/2 lengths. Smart players took note when an virtually untested colt named Buddha won the Wood in only his fourth race, but they love Holiday and will keep a wary eye on Arkansas Derby winner Private Emblem.

4. How to Mix a Mint Julep. Boil two cups sugar and two cups water for five minutes to make simple syrup. Cool. Add eight sprigs of fresh mint. Mull. Chill. Fill silver julep cups with shaved ice. Contemplate. Pour one teaspoon mint syrup and two ounces bourbon (from Kentucky, of course) over ice. Stir rapidly to frost outside of cups. Garnish with mint leaves. Sit down. Drink. Let the foolishness begin. And remember: On Derby day, supermarkets and greengrocers run out of fresh mint early, so get your butler and driver moving by dawn.

5. Why the Chalk Gets Erased. Due to its huge twenty-horse fields and double-truck starting gates, the Kentucky Derby quite often begins as the Oklahoma Land Rush and, by the clubhouse turn, degenerates into a pileup at the Daytona 500. Throw in intangibles like an unfortunate post-position draw (such as the far outside), an unexpected morning deluge or plain bad racing luck, and you quickly see why the Derby favorite has won the race just twice in the last twenty years. Even if your beloved five-to-two shot manages to weave his way through the L.A.-style traffic, accelerates in the stretch and gets a clear shot at the wire, there's no guarantee he will like Churchill's unique surface, the bellowing of 60,000 lunatics who've been drinking the aforementioned mint juleps for three days, or the notion of exerting himself for an extra furlong when he could be lolling in the barn munching oats. Rule of thumb: Forget the chalk, even if it's named Secretariat or Harlan's Holiday, and put your hard-earned two bucks on an outsider who figures (see number 9 below).

6. The Dope on Dosage. Like astrophysics and Powerball, equine science has created a world of wonders in recent years, not the least of which is a formula by which horsemen calculate their animals' suitability to run certain distances according to their pedigrees. To keep it simple (like the syrup), the lower a thoroughbred's "dosage" number, the more likely he or she will be able to handle the Derby's tough mile and a quarter. Horses rated 4.00 and above are considered sprinters; those ranked under 2.00 may be able to run all day -- if not always very fast. Since "dosage" became the rage fifteen years ago, only two Derby runners have overcome high numbers to win the race. This year, Harlan's Holiday is 2.33, Buddha is 2.00, Sunday Break is 2.37 and Saarland is 1.84. Santa Anita Derby winner Came Home, who is bound to attract a few bucks on May 4, is marginal at 4.00, as are Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Johannesburg (3.69), Essence of Dubai (3.57) and Private Emblem (3.50). The lowest dosage number in the field belongs to an inexperienced colt, Medaglia D'Oro (1.36), who finished second to Buddha at the Wood in just his fourth lifetime start. Beware!

7. Spy a Trained Eye. Good trainers win big races. It's as easy as that. The great Ben Jones won six Derbys between 1938 and 1952, and Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons put three trophies in the case in the 1930s. This year, both D. Wayne Lukas, who earned Derby roses with Winning Colors (1988), Thunder Gulch (1995) and Grindstone (1996), and Bob Baffert (back-to-back wins in 1997 and 1998) have slipped into the field late. The Lukas-trained Proud Citizen was considered an impossible outsider until he won the Lexington Stakes April 20 at 8-1 odds; Baffert had no Derby horse until War Emblem took the Illinois Derby in an upset, was sold for a million dollars, and the new owners signed him on as trainer. They may not be the fastest horses on four legs, but their trainers are magicians accustomed to scoring big prizes. By contrast, guys like Ken McPeek (Harlan's Holiday), Paco Gonzalez (Came Home) and Ted West (Easy Grades) are in the second rank.

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