LOUISVILLE -- Trainers preparing for the Kentucky Derby keep saying the same thing, over and over again. The race is wide open. There was Kiaran McLaughlin, a Kentucky native who saddled 2006 Belmont Stakes winner Jazil, standing in the morning cold and wind Wednesday on the Churchill Downs backstretch.
"It's about as open as you can get,'' McLaughlin said. "Ten horses. Maybe 12, can win it.''
He's talking and I'm looking down at my digital recorder. The counter on the face tells me that McLaughlin is my 29th recorded interview related to Saturday's 137th Derby. (I had to scrape a little frost off the recorder to see the number because it was chillier in Kentucky than it was in Canada for most of the alpine ski races at the 2010 Olympics. But no complaints; I'm talking to people about a horse race for a living and, besides, I like cold weather). Of those 29 interviews, pretty much every one -- trainers, jockeys, owners -- have offered some variation on the wide-open theme. (Here I'll interrupt my narrative thread to say that, yes, this column ends with my prediction of the first three finishers in the race; feel free to scroll).
On the surface, this seems like a good thing. Blanket finish! Betting possibilities! Huge payoffs! But of course it's really not. It's not a good thing in any sport. What's good is greatness. When there is greatness, that opens the door to both historic achievement and earth-shaking upsets. Wide open means mediocre and everybody here knows it, even if nobody contesting the race is saying it.
The mediocrity is doubly painful in this arena, because for decades the racing game has arrived at Churchill Downs in early May searching for a wonder horse. The history of the sport is disproportionately measured by its champions' beatdowns and not by the competitiveness of its races. What is the most famous horse race in history? Secretariat's surreal, 31-length romp to win the 1973 Belmont Stakes, secure the Triple Crown and validate Big Red's transcendent greatness. (Don't get me wrong, it still gives me chills. "Moving like a tremendous machine'' is right there with "Down Goes Frazier,'' but it is remembered as a coronation, not a competition). Affirmed is best remembered as the last Triple Crown winner, not for his heart-stopping win over rival Alydar in the Belmont.
That is not only the nature of the sport, but also its unspoken marketing strategy, force-fed to the public every spring. Horse racing is struggling with cratering live crowds, a declining horse population and now, even wobbly wagering figures. It's been a long time since racing was a mainstream sport; now it's like track and field or swimming or boxing. There's an audience, but it's not a broad, needle-moving audience. Every year the sport's marketers (and frankly, media as well, and I've absolutely been guilty) declare that the sport can be saved if only we are gifted with another Secretariat, or, failing that, a great horse that America can love, embrace and presumably ride the rails to follow like it did Seabiscuit in the 1930s.
This hypothesis might be severely flawed. It's true that some percentage of the American sports-watching public that normally doesn't care about racing can get behind a horse to some degree. The brilliant mare Zenyatta became very popular last year, leading to her heartbreaking loss in the Breeders' Cup Classic. ESPN's rating for the final hour of the Breeders' Cup telecast was a 3.1, a big improvement over the previous year, but still indicative of a niche sport.
A Triple Crown winner (or even a Triple Crown attempt) might also draw in casual fans. But for the long haul? I'd bet against it heavily, unless that star runs like Secretariat did 38 years ago and that is immeasurably unlikely (and even then, I'm not sure; the sports and sports media worlds have changed spectacularly since 1973). And any horse that wins a Triple Crown (or gets to the Belmont and runs competitively) is likely to be swiftly retired for financial reasons, killing the buzz before it develops. That's an institutional issue.
So a star will not rescue racing. But a star would help the Derby. Premier Pegasus might have been a star after crushing the best California three-year-olds in the March 16 San Felipe Stakes, but he was injured just before the Santa Anita Derby in early April. To Honor and Serve might have been a star after a dominant victory in last fall's Remsen Stakes at Belmont Park in New York, but suffered a strained ligament in March. Toby's Corner might have been a star after a closing victory in the April 6 Wood Memorial prep, but he came up lame just this week, while his owners were en route to Louisville. Uncle Mo might have been a star too, but he was scratched Friday morning because of a gastrointestinal ailment.
What is left is a group 19 horses with question marks.
"I think there's going to be a star that comes out of this,'' says three-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert. That's a logical thought, but not supported by recent history.
This is Derby No. 10 for me as a writer (many before that as a fan, but not here on the grounds). My counter to Baffert goes like this: The Derby does not make stars, it validates them. (OK, sure, whichever horse wins the Derby is a star at least until the Preakness, but that's not long enough to qualify as true stardom. Right, Giacomo?).
Looking at the last nine Derbies, three winners came in as stars of a sort: Smarty Jones (2004), Street Sense (2007) and Big Brown (2008). Barbaro (2006) became a star by winning the Derby decisively, but even more so by surviving after a horrible Preakness injury. War Emblem (2002) won the Derby and Preakness, but flopped in the Belmont and was never embraced. Giacomo (2005) and Mine That Bird (2009) were epic long shots that got the fortnight buzz and lost in Baltimore. Super Saver (2010) walked in the shadow of jockey Calvin Borel, who won the Derby for the third time in four years.
That leaves Funny Cide, who hadn't won a graded stakes race (although he had finished third in the Florida Derby and second in the Wood Memorial) until he took the Kentucky Derby. The story of his common-man ownership, including five high school buddies from the hinterlands of upstate New York, sent Funny Cide into a brief crossover ride. He won the Preakness, drew more than 100,000 spectators to the Belmont and ran 29 more races -- he was a gelding with no breeding value -- over the next four years. He was no Seabiscuit, but people knew his name, or at least his story.
And he is the only horse in the last decade that came into the Derby in relative anonymity (outside the racing world) and left as a star (as measured in racing terms). It just doesn't happen with any frequency at all.
Arkansas Derby winner Archarcharch has worked brilliantly here, but on Wednesday evening he drew the No. 1 post position, hurting his chances to be that star. The last and only horse in the 20th century to win the Derby from No. 1 post position in a field of 17 or more was War Admiral in 1937. (It pains me to write this, because I was planning to pick Archarcharch to win the race, and now I will not. It's an unwritten rule in handicapping that if you find yourself about to endorse something that hasn't happened in 74 years, back off.)
Now, picks. Some thoughts on the process: There are some fast horses in the race -- Comma to the Top (second in the Santa Anita Derby) is fast. Shackleford (a game second in the Florida Derby) is very fast. Soldat (winner of the Fountain of Youth) is fast, but trainer McLaughlin says he will drop back. We'll see. Pants on Fire (winner of the Louisiana Derby) is fast. I'm throwing every one of them out though. The Derby goes fast every year and only a truly exceptional horse could handle that pace and win. I don't think there are any such horses in this field.
Now, the picks, round two, for a Derby that's indeed, wide open. Look for a cavalry charge down the lane and possibly a multiple-horse photo finish (also a measure of greatness's absence).
1) Nehro -- When all else fails (and all else does fail), look for a horse that's improving. Nehro didn't run a race until Dec. 12 in Louisiana and has only made five starts. But he's coming on, with a solid second in the Louisiana Derby on March 26 and a flying second in the Arkansas Derby three weeks later. Essentially, he ran two "final'' prep races. "I needed validation,'' says his trainer, Steve Asmussen. Now he's got it; the horse was confused and tentative in Louisiana and aggressive in Hot Springs. Nehro will be breaking from the No. 18 post, way outside, but there are fast horses directly to his left. He should get a clear run and save ground under jockey Corey Nakatani. Then he comes flying at the end.
2) Dialed In -- Trainer Nick Zito's delicately handled Florida Derby winner is the "safe" pick. He's the 4-1 morning line favorite, he's won a major prep race and he has a trainer with two Derby wins and a 28-year-old jockey (Julien Leparoux) who is leading the next generation of riders. Dialed In is a dead closer, so I'm worried that he might get too far back or encounter too much traffic in trying to finish, but in the end he's an honest, predictable horse that's always made a run.
3) Archarcharch -- This is how much I like the Arkansas Derby winner. To repeat: The last and only horse in the 20th century to win the Derby from No. 1 post position in a field of 17 or more was War Admiral in 1937. (Ferdinand won from the No. 1 hole, but there were only 16 horses in the race.) Clockers say he has trained brilliantly at Churchill Downs. He has shown the tactical speed and toughness (a horse flipped over the starting gate next to Arch in the Rebel Stakes on March 19, kicking him about the legs, and he bounced back stronger) to survive a rodeo like the Derby. I'm convinced Arch's post position will prevent him from winning the race, but not from hitting the board.