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Friday, May 6, 2011

Who'll Be Wearing The Roses?

Who will be standing in this famous enclosure, at about 6:40 PM Central Time tomorrow?

I have seen this winner's circle in person, on a grey and gloomy day, when all seemed deserted at Churchill Downs and no racehorses were visible. Yet the echos of famous hoofbeats still seemed to reverberate throughout the towering grandstand and on the track where so many hopes and dreams have been realized or reduced to dust. Walking through the tunnel from the paddock, I could only marvel that I was treading where He had: in case I'd forgotten, Secretariat's name appears along with every other Derby winner's around the paddock area. His name, though, is lettered in gold, just like the few others who have managed to complete the seemingly impossible trifecta of the Triple Crown.

So many horses seeking the biggest prize in horse racing have passed through that tunnel. Native Dancer and Northern Dancer - the first, a horse who by all accounts should have won and didn't, the second, a horse who avenged his grandfather by claiming the roses and whose blood is carried by innumerable modern TBs. Pensive and Ponder, a pair of father and son winners. Black Gold, hero of a favorite childhood book which still causes me to burst into tears at the end even after countless re-readings. Monarchos, a gorgeous grey whom I have had the pleasure of meeting and who almost, but not quite, eclipsed Big Red's record time. And of course, the movie-star handsome, phenomenally talented Barbaro, who would go on to break the hearts of racing fans and ordinary people alike. He certainly looked like the next Triple Crown winner... but if there's one thing certain in racing, it's that nothing is ever for sure.

Ponder after his Derby win. I have a wonderful B/W sketch of him hanging on the wall at home,
which I meant to photograph. Not the most famous Derby winner, but a special one.
For 2011, predicting the Derby outcome is especially tough. To quote an expert, "This year is as wide open as I've ever seen it." Every time I think I've made up my mind about who will win, something happens to change it. I have put off writing this post because I've been hashing things over so much. In fact, I'm still prevaricating a bit today. I have a tendency to not follow the beaten path, so one horse you won't be seeing is the current favorite, Dialed In. All I had to hear was "He looks like a sprinter" and I was out.

For the record: NO, I have not been waiting to post because of the Uncle Mo decision. The fact is, I have never been on board with Uncle Mo. For some reason, I just can't like him. This week has not helped, either: one day, we have owner Repole full of braggadocio and carrying on about how the horse is going to blow everyone away, if bettors don't make him the favorite he will (and scarily, he has the $$ to maybe pull that off), blah, blah, blah and the next day, I read in the paper, "Pletcher and Repole still uncertain if Mo will start." In the press conference today Repole said Mo has been off his meds for the suspected GI tract infection for a few days, but doesn't seem to be getting better. Whatever the reason (and I will be waiting with great interest to hear what they finally decide is wrong with him, as three of the top equine vets in the world are not agreeing), I'm glad he's scratched. We don't need another Life At Ten debacle in the racing world! You have to wonder if the racing powers-that-be flat-out told the guys not to run him if there was the slightest doubt...  Pletcher has never been my favorite trainer, and regardless of what the courts/whomever determined, I think it's HIS fault that LAT even stepped on the track that day. Ridiculous.

Anyway, here goes, in order of how I like 'em:

1) Archarcharch

DAMN. I have to say that again: DAMN! Guess who's my favorite horse, and guess who has drawn practically the worst post position possible, #1? Yep, "Archie" (I hope that's his barn name). At least a horse has won from here in the not-too-distant past of 1986. There are some post positions from which a horse has never won! Unfortunately, the fact that the 1986 winner was Ferdinand seems like a bad omen, too. We know how that poor horse's story ended (In a slaughterhouse in Japan. Yes, - a Derby winner. As far as I'm concerned, about the most disgraceful chapter in the annals of American Thoroughbred racing.)

However, according to Steve Haskin, Archie still stands a chance IF the following happens:
 ~  He can break cleanly
 ~  He can escape the first sixteenth of a mile unscathed
 ~  He can get a good position along the inside somewhere near midpack

That's an awful lot of "ifs," I'm afraid. Nevertheless, I'm sticking with my guy Archx3 here. I think he has the record, the class, the looks and the pedigree to go the distance. I love his rider, Jon Court. (Watched every episode of that "Jockeys" show. His wait for a Derby horse is FINALLY over!) I love the fact that his trainer, "Jinks" Fire is a popular guy and untouched by a whiff of a scandal. I love that the trainer's daughter is married to Jon Court - nothing like keeping it all in the family! (Might make for sticky dinner table conversation, though, if things don't go well.) And I love the way Archarcharch took charge in the Arkansas Derby and looked like he could keep going for another quarter mile. Guess we're going to find out.

2) Soldat

This is the spot where I've been having the most trouble. I've changed my mind three times just today! So much is going to depend on the weather, unfortunately. The likelihood of a track that's going to at least be damp, much less sloppy, has caused me to go with Soldat in the #2 spot today. I think it's fascinating that a liking for sloppy tracks, aka being a "mudder," actually seems to be an inheritable trait in Thoroughbreds. I really don't know why, but if the racing peeps say that's the case, well, I guess I believe it.

Prior to his last race, the Florida Derby, Soldat was looking like a strong contender for this race. He did not finish well in Florida. But "there wuz reasons," as they say. He hated the heat and washed out in the paddock, for starters; I can sympathize with that, not being a big fan of hot days myself. Kentucky is not going to be hot tomorrow, and he's been training well, and prior to the FL Derby he was a consistent up-front horse. I'm willing to draw a line through that race and suggest that he's going to rebound with a vengeance tomorrow.

I've got to have some kind of human interest/back story connection to really "bond" with my Derby picks. Soldat's is a bit tenuous, but I did find one. His grandsire is the wonderful Danzig, who I got to more or less got to meet (along with Monarchos) at Claiborne Farm. "Danny" was an older man by then (it was 2003), and I think pensioned from stud duties, but was still turned out in his own paddock and running around. We visitors were not allowed to go and pet him, though; Danny unfortunately exemplified the stereotype of bad-ass Thoroughbred stallion, who'd just as soon eat you for lunch as look at you. I don't know much about his son War Front, who in turn sired Soldat, but hopefully that ill temper has been diluted a bit.

3) Mucho Macho Man

A very legitimate contender, MMM has also drawn an excellent post position: 13. This happens to be my favorite number, so that sealed the deal for me (if you're beginning to think I'm superstitious, you're right). This tall (over 17 hands!), dark and handsome bay did not win in his last outing, but I think he's sitting on a big race. His connections are interesting, too: his trainer, Kathy Ritvo, had a bad heart and would not be alive today but for the grace of someone donating one for her transplant. Furthermore, if MMM wins, it would be the first Derby for a female trainer - a nice little bonus.

I also like the story about Mucho Macho Man's birth. The mare was due to foal in May, already a late birth for a TB foal. That mare had other plans and held onto her baby for an extra six weeks (crazy mama). She finally unexpectedly foaled while out in a field, and when they found her little colt he appeared to be dead. People worked frantically trying to revive him, and then, to everyone's astonishment, he suddenly leapt to his feet and began running around! No usual tottering steps from the newborn, just get up and go. It was so amazing they nicknamed him "Lazarus." Maybe this long-strided guy will stage a repeat by hanging back in the pack, and then ruuuuunnnnniiiIIInnnng past all the other horses and over the finish line first. But if he runs out of track, you can be sure he'll be my bet in the Belmont.

4) Shackleford

Again, I have been waffling on this choice, but now I'm having a "Shack Attack!" I'm leaning towards Shackleford for a number of reasons.
-  He's huge. I always think (Mine That Bird, notwithstanding) that a bit of size helps a horse in the Derby, which is such a free-for-all, sometimes resembling an equine round of bumper cars at the start. Steve Haskin commented that Shack is a Clydesdale compared to the other horses.
-  He's already won at Churchill Downs. Another mystery to me is why horses "favor" a certain racetrack more than others, and I know that Churchill's surface is one that they can definitely like or dislike. Guess it has to do with the shape of the oval and the footing, but I find it fascinating. It also makes a handy excuse for trainers when a horse doesn't run well: "He didn't like the track." Really, did you ask him? :-) I'm kidding... we horse people know perfectly well that they are quite capable of expressing their likes and dislikes. "Excuse me, but just who do you think you're trying to feed that crappy hay to? Do I LOOK like I will eat Bermuda grass? Bring back the alfalfa, and bring it now, thankyouverymuch."
-  While stabled at the Downs, Shack has worked extremely well in both slop and when the track was faster. Only Mother Nature knows what we're going to wind up with tomorrow.
-  He's a closer, always helpful in the Derby, and was leading in the Florida Derby until Dialed In caught him. I don't think Dialed In has the goods to stretch another quarter mile, so the extra piece of track might suit Shack very nicely (providing he too doesn't run out of gas. *Sigh*)
-  He's a bright chestnut with chrome. You knew that was coming, right?

5) Twinspired

You didn't really think I'd fail to mention the only grey horse in the field, did you? :-) If I was at the Downs tomorrow, you can be sure I'd bet on this fellow just because of his color. Not to mention, I believe he actually has a shot at the race, especially if it's a sloppy track. For the icing on this pretty grey cake, look for jockey Mike Smith, aka "Mikey," my favorite jock along with Jon Court. Mike rode my horse heroine Zenyatta to most of her victories and absolutely adores her. This automatically makes him a Good Guy in my book. Mike certainly knows the Churchill track and would like to get even for Zenny's miss-by-a-nose in the Breeder's Cup.

Twinspired also gets Honorable Mention for the best name of the day. Nothing like dreaming a bit when you fill in the registration papers, eh? Remember, something like 30,000 Thoroughbreds are born every year. Only 20 of them will wind up standing in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May three years later. Those are some pretty daunting odds, but here he is, a horse clearly named with the Kentucky Derby in mind, actually making it in the race. If he wins I'll wish I was a headline writer!

The best name, however, has got to be Pants On Fire. Somebody really had his/her thinking cap on! What a terrific name for a race horse. I've got a friend who's betting on this horse strictly on the basis of his name, and I'm sure he won't be alone.

So there you have it - my official picks! And it's only taken me, I don't know, about four hours of typing/retyping and a lot of thought time. I really could keep juggling around my #2, 3 and 4 horses but I'm solid with my #1 as Archx3. I feel very sorry for the real turf writers who, according to the USA Today poll I just saw, are pretty much all over the map on their favorite for this race. You can color me completely unsurprised if none of my picks even hits the board and a longshot like, say, Twice The Appeal comes up first. With Calvin Bo-Rail riding him you just never know what might happen!

* Disclaimer: Ever heard the expression, "A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing?" I love TBs and TB racing. But I actually do have only a little knowledge of handicapping (and generally lose more than I win when I'm actually at the track), so please don't run out and bet the farm based on anything I have to say. Not that I think you'd really do that, anyway. :-)

1 comment:

  1. RiderWriter - I just now found the comment you left on my blog a couple of weeks ago. I am so glad you enjoyed it! I've been reading yours for awhile now - I love all the photographs! I so wish I had more from back in the day. Unfortunately, they're pretty much all gone now. Beautiful stories, beautiful images, beautiful blog. I tried to sign up to follow you, but I am technically challenged, and not sure I did so successfully.


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