HOUSTON — Aside from the World Series, no American sports event carries the historical weight of the Kentucky Derby. It’s been going for 140 years, never been canceled, never been skipped, like the Series of ’94.
And it never ceases to enthrall. Horse racing is a major cultural and pop-cultural event on the first Saturday of May, if at no other time. Last year’s Kentucky Derby drew 16.2 million televiewers – a million more than watched the deciding Game 6 of the World Series, 2 million more than the final game of March Madness. This is America’s only annual sporting event that draws more female viewers than male viewers.
It’s called “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” But millions watch the pre-race pageantry, ladies in lace and ruffles and shaded by sprawling hats with so many flowers and ribbons that Marie Antoinette would have considered them ostentatious.
Other millions are drawn to the compelling narratives, Rockwell-meets-Rockefellers. For this May 3 race you have Art Sherman, 77, until now little known outside his bailiwick of Northern California. For the first time he competes for American horse racing’s greatest prize, as trainer of the much favored California Chrome.
This is the sport of kings but also the sport of American dreams. Here you’ll see the most unlikely of success stories, spun from inscrutable combinations of luck and toil. What you probably won’t see on May 3 are stories of anyone who was bankrupted, one way or other, by a business that rewards a very few.
It’s an especially tough sport for gamblers. The famous Damon Runyan line that “all horse players die broke,” continues to be more true than not. And it’s easy to see why. By the time the track and the state scoop out their shares, the “vig” here amounts to about 20 percent, as opposed to the 5 percent you might give on football bets or slot machines.
So to win at the races, you must be analytical, mathematical, selective, patient and/or very lucky. You study twice as many races as you play. And you don’t chase the big kill, the exotics – exactas, superfectas and such, where the take hits 30 percent.
Given how difficult a job horse-playing is, I sometimes forgo it on Derby Day. I stay home and watch NBC, where the narratives are well told, the pageantry well displayed, and the athleticism of the horses and jockeys so magnificent that a wager isn’t necessary to make the event captivating.
But most likely I’ll be drawn to Sam Houston Race Park, to play the stakes-heavy card at Churchill Downs. I’ll drink a surprisingly authentic mint julep and watch the simulcast unfold on the many screens in all its bright colors and brassy sounds.
A few weeks ago I thought this could be the best Derby in a decade. But as usual with this sport, things go wrong.
In Arkansas, Tapiture was shining like Chrome, winning back-to-back graded stakes by more than four lengths each. But then his barn became the subject of horse-abuse investigations, and Tapiture regressed. He finished second in the Rebel Stakes, March 15, after a pancake-sized spot of white kidney sweat in the post parade indicated he was not fit.
A week later, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released surreptitiously recorded video and audio with incriminating conversation by Steve Asmussen’s second in command, Scott Blasi. Whom Asmussen then fired. There was chatter on the tapes about jockey Ricardo Santana, Jr., prodding horses with an electric “machine.”
A week after PETA made its evidence public, Asmussen’s 27-year-old shed foreman, Harry Hubbard Johnson, committed suicide. Not the sort of narrative the kings like for their sport.
While no evidence pointed specifically to Tapiture, the fact is he was ridden by Santana in his two blowout wins, as well as in the half-length loss in the Rebel. With Santana under suspicion, Asmussen switched jockeys for the Arkansas Derby, to the more electrifying – in the best sense of the term — Joel Rosario. Last year’s Kentucky Derby winner (on Orb), Rosario rode Tapiture to a very unelectric fourth at Oaklawn.
In another Derby prep, the Wood Memorial, Samraat, who was undefeated after five races, finished second on a confused ride from Jose Ortiz. Worried about speed sensation Social Inclusion, who felt immediate pressure from Schivarelli and Kristo, Ortiz contested the crowded pace instead of stalking it, as he did in the five winning efforts.
The jockey quickly realized his error and pulled back. But he could summon only enough of a second run to make second place behind the stretch-charging Wicked Strong.
The Florida Derby, the most competitive of the preps, produced an impressive winner in Constitution, who had one of the more appealing of narratives. He was trying to be the first Derby winner since 1882 who was unraced as a 2-year-old.
But then he cracked a cannonbone and exited the Derby trail. “He was our biggest chance to win the Kentucky Derby since Super Saver,” said Constitution’s trainer Todd Pletcher, referring to his 2010 Derby winner.
So with the demise of Constitution, the blemish on Samraat and the cloud over Tapiture and the trainer whose nomination for the Racing Hall of Fame had to be yanked, you wonder if anyone can stop the streaking California Chrome. He’s won four consecutive stakes races by five lengths or more.
Yet there are reasons to doubt the western conqueror at the 2/1 or 8/5 odds he’s likely to carry. There’s an old saying in Louisville: “When they hit the stretch at Churchill they remember who their daddy was.”
The favorite’s daddy, Lucky Pulpit, was a sprinter. As a sire he’s had four crops of colts to race as 3-year-olds, and so far California Chrome is the only one to win beyond 1 1/16 miles. Horses bred for middle distance usually tire when the din of the Churchill grandstand slaps them in the face. This is where they complete their turn into a longer stretch than they’ve ever pounded before.
Perhaps Candy Boy, though trounced by Sherman’s strapping chestnut in the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Stakes, will benefit from his distance-oriented pedigree over the additional furlong.
It will seem longer than it would be on the hard fast sand of SoCal. At Churchill the horses – 20 of them – must plow through dark, thick, gummy dirt. Some like it, some don’t.
At the risk of sounding like Donald Rumsfeld, there are a lot of unknowns here. Given all the unknowns (including pace scenario, with no committed front runner), I’m considering longshots. It the past 10 years, Animal Kingdom, Mine That Bird and Giacamo won at odds greater than 20/1. Look for flashes of speed and love of distance.
Ride on Curlin ran third in the Rebel, then second in the Arkansas Derby, behind 40-1 Danza’s uncontested inside trip. Danza’s sprint bloodlines did not hold him back at a mile and an eighth, but that does not prove him at a mile and a quarter any more than it does California Chrome.
Ride on Curlin has had tough luck (7-wide in the Southwest Stakes, hard knocks in the Rebel) but won purses in his two starts at Churchill. His sire Curlin excelled at long runs, winning the Preakness and Breeders Cup Classic. This colt keeps improving. Further boosting him is a jockey switch: Jon Court to Calvin Borel, three-time Derby winner.
Uncle Sigh was closing ground on Samraat, a neck back, when the Gotham Stakes ended. Then in the Wood, he broke late on the turn from the 9th post, insuring a wide trip. He still rallied to a semi-respectable 5th. He’s better bred for distance than Samraat and has the better chance in this race.
I won’t bet on anyone without reading the Daily Racing Form’s workout report. The Derby is so competitive that it can be won only by a perfectly fit horse who fits Churchill’s unique surface.
You need to pay attention to the paddock, where a horse who’s sweaty or fractious is probably too nervous to win. And monitor the tote board, which unfortunately can change quickly. I’d prefer to invest in a 2/1 favorite who has a 60% win probability. You’re likely to see one of those on the day’s Churchill card, but the Derby isn’t it.
Therefore I lean here to a low-dollar shotgun approach. I’m hoping for Ride on Curlin at 18/1, General a Rod at 25/1, Candy Boy or Uncle Sigh at 30/1. May the worst one win.
All these recommended colts are bred and built to last, have tactical speed and have won at least once (though not too often, which is why they’re longshots). All but Uncle Sigh, who had an excuse, finished second or third in their final Derby prep. That may be better than winning – which could leave little in the tank for the Derby itself.
Unless California Chrome and Wildcat Red hook up, there’s not likely to be enough pace to bring victory to a deep closer like Wicked Strong. We’ll see a lot of stalkers, probably some bumping shoulders down the stretch. The winner could be a grinder with grit, a Samraat or Ride on Curlin, Hoppertunity or Wildcat Red.
The favorite hasn’t had to be gritty. So it’s yet another unknown if he can be if need be.
Click here for link to a recent article on Asmussen by The Washington Post’s Andrew Beyer.