LOUISVILLE -- As two men in business suits shook little numbered pills from a plastic bottle Wednesday evening and matched them with the names of horses entered in Saturday's Kentucky Derby, and as NBC Sports Network strained to turn this tedious exercise -- the Derby post position draw -- into watchable television, Gary Stevens sat at a round table and scribbled notes on a paper listing the Derby horses. The 51-year-old Stevens, a three-time Derby winner, will ride Candy Boy in this year's race. But the riding is just part of the work; a difficult and dangerous part, but just a part. In this moment, Stevens was game-planning the race on the fly, riding a horse while sitting in a small wooden chair.
A number would be pulled from the bottle, signifying a post position. Then a horse's name would be announced, assigning him to that post position. Stevens would write the name of the horse on his sheet next to a preprinted number slot, and then quickly scrawl some notes next to the name, describing that horse's running style. He would write speed next to some names, indicating that they would sprint toward the lead when the gate opens. Next to others he would write Just off the pace, or middle of the pack, closer or the damning no chance.
When the draw was finished Stevens drew bulls-eyes next to the names of five horses: Wicked Strong, Intense Holiday, Hoppertunity (who withdrew from the race because of a foot problem early on Thursday morning), General A Rod and favorite California Chrome. "These five have targets on them," said Stevens. "I'm going to know where every one of them is at every point in the race." He shook the paper for emphasis and then folded it up and stuffed it into a pocket in his jeans.
The long run-up to the Kentucky Derby belongs to the quirky and sympathetic owners, to their quests and causes and their families and friends. It belongs to the trainers, long-suffering or dominant, glib or taciturn. It belongs to the storylines that won't survive the Darwinian process of the race itself. It belongs to the city of Louisville, to the traditions and the parties and the celebrations. It belongs to controversies, large and small.
The Kentucky Derby is many things. It's a bourbon-soaked bacchanal throughout the Commonwealth of Kentucky that cuts across class lines (except at Churchill Downs itself, where class lines are painted 10 feet wide), a party the likes of which many people never experience in their lifetime. (Much of what Hunter S. Thompson wrote holds true today). It is a television show in which millions of viewers are presented a glamorous and digestible capsule of the event itself, much like another of NBC's valuable properties, the Olympic Games. It is a sporting event that many people watch, but few comprehend (or care to).
But for the participants, it is also the most important horse race on the planet, 10 furlongs that will alter the course of peoples' lives. It will help some breeding farms prosper and cause others to struggle. It will make some owners wealthy and drive others from the big stage forever. It will create stars from previously unknown trainers (in 2009, Chip Woolley trained 50-1 shot Derby winner Mine That Bird and now Skeet Ullrich is playing Woolley in a major movie, despite the fact that Bird never won another race and Woolley was fired before the horse retired) and prolong anonymity for others.
And the race itself is unlike any other in the world. None of the horses in the field will have competed in front of 150,000 roaring, lubricated spectators (or will ever do so again). None of them will have raced in a super-sized 20-horse field (or will ever do so again). None of them will have raced the Derby distance of 1 ¼ miles (and many will never do so again).
"That's why the Derby is the Derby," said Stevens. And that's why, come Saturday, the Derby belongs to the horses, and the race belongs to the small athletes who sit astride their backs.
In the days, weeks and months leading to the 2012 Kentucky Derby, jockey Julien Leparoux fixated incessantly on the race. A French expatriate with the soft features of a teenage boy, Leparoux, then 28, was -- and remains -- a very solid and respected race rider, and this would be his fifth consecutive Derby mount. Yet this Derby would also be different in one very important way: Leparoux seemingly had a very good chance to win. His mount was a long-striding bay colt named Union Rags, a winner of four races in seven lifetime starts and a betting favorite throughout the yearlong run-up to the Derby. Union Rags, trained by Michael Matz, of Barbaro fame, would ultimately go off at 5-1 odds, second choice in the 20-horse Derby field. It would be Leparoux's best Derby chance, and with that status brought a special brand of pressure and nerves.
Leparoux had been named the rider on Union Rags in February, after Javier Casetellano, who had ridden Union Rags in his first four starts, decided to ride another horse on the Derby trail. When he was a 2-year-old, Union Rags had won his first three races by more than 16 combined lengths and had finished a very close second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The rider who replaced Casetellano was getting a sensational opportunity, and that rider was Leparoux. He rode Union Rags to an easy victory in one prep race and then a disappointing third in another. Even while riding multiple races almost every day, Leparoux never stopped thinking about the first Saturday in May.
"Especially the month before," said Leparoux this week at Churchill Downs, where he does not have a mount in this year's Derby. "I was thinking about the Derby in the morning, in the afternoon. Then from Tuesday to Saturday in the week of the race, I wasn't thinking about anything else. It's a different race. It's just a more," -- Leparoux struggled to find the right word -- "major race."
On race day, Union Rags broke poorly from the gate in the No. 4 post position, was squeezed between horses, dropped well back into field and was hopelessly beaten before he passed beneath the wire for the first time. Whether any of this was Leparoux's fault is subjective guessing. (Matz certainly thought it was; he replaced Leparoux with John Velazquez and Union Rags won the Belmont Stakes five weeks after the Derby). "He broke poorly from the gate in the Derby," says Leparoux. "I had to go to Plan B. Most of the jockeys in the Derby have to go to Plan B.''
Leparoux speaks a fundamental truth: Plan A is a Derby jockey's dream; Plan B is a Derby jockey's reality. And the Derby is a jockey's race like no other. "It's a lot of pressure on those guys," says three-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert. "Riding in the Derby, in a 20-horse field."
Because the race is so important, and because there are so many horses and because horses and jockeys sometimes behave unpredictably on the biggest stage in their sport, they all feel a little of what Leparoux felt. "It's not whether you have butterflies," says three-time Derby winner Kent Desormeaux, "It's how are you going to deal with those butterflies." Some overcome it. Some are smothered by it. The oldest hands can see it long before the race. "You can look around in the paddock and tell which guys are first-time Derby riders," says veteran rider Mike Smith, who is 48 but seemingly at the peak of his powers. (Smith was scheduled to ride in the Derby on Saturday until Hoppertunity dropped out of the race.)
After Stevens finished his crib sheet, he walked across the room and embraced Victor Espinoza, 41, who will ride 5-2 morning-line Derby favorite California Chrome on Saturday. Espinoza came into Louisville under the radar a dozen years ago and stole the Derby from the front on War Emblem, an ill-tempered speedball who got loose on the lead. On that day Espinoza got the easy advantage and then sat, sat, sat and sat some more, with the patience of a surgeon. Baffert, War Emblem's trainer, had told the rider to sit still until he turned for home and then turn the black colt loose. "Be careful when you get excited," Baffert told Espinoza before that race. "And you're going to get excited." Espinoza did as he was instructed and then stood up in the irons when War Emblem blazed under the wire in brilliant sunshine, a surprise winner.
Now Espinoza is under nobody's radar. And on Wednesday he wasn't excited, he was nervous. California Chrome has won three consecutive races in dominant fashion, all since Espinoza became his rider. His victory by 5 ¼ lengths in the April 5 Santa Anita Derby is the most impressive performance of the year by any of the 20 Derby horses, and the colt has been made an overwhelming favorite in the program. But on Wednesday California Chrome drew the No. 5 post position, not a disastrous draw, but a little closer to the rail than trainer Art Sherman and Espinoza might have liked. (This is especially significant because California Chrome occasionally hesitates when the gate opens, which is deadly in the Derby). Minutes later, Espinoza, who stands just a little over five feet, was surrounded by taller people with cameras and microphones, and it was getting warmer by the second.
"This makes me more nervous than the race," said Espinoza, gesturing at his inquisitors. Asked if the draw would change his strategy, Espinoza said, "Yeah, probably. It's all about the post position. I didn't know my post until today. Now that I know, I can figure out how to ride California Chrome."
The long-timers all have a Derby they would like to ride again. In 1994 Smith was on Prairie Bayou and was forced to circle the field coming off the final turn. Meanwhile, Jerry Bailey and Sea Hero cut the corner along the rail and won the race, with Prairie Bayou second by far less than the distance he lost on the turn. "I'd like to have had a better trip that day," says Smith. "I think I would have won the race." Instead the jockey waited a dozen years to finally win the Derby.
In 2010 Desormeaux was on a closer named Paddy O'Prado. He worked his way through the field and, as he approached the top of the stretch, he saw a small hole open along the rail. He moved toward the opening, but Calvin Borel and Super Saver shot through the gap right in front of him. Desormeaux had to slam on the brakes. Borel got through on the inside and won his third Derby in four years. Desormeaux and Paddy finished third. "If I had gotten to the hole first, I win the Derby," said Desormeaux. "But Calvin had the horse to get there first.''
The starting gate sits at the top of the long Churchill Downs homestretch. Twenty horses break together. Some break straight, some break sideways. "I'd rather lose three lengths and be straight than break fast and get hit from the side by some other horse," said Stevens. "Getting hit takes so much out of a horse, with a mile and a quarter to run. It makes them so much more tired." Many horses and riders, like Leparoux and Union Rags, lose the race in those opening strides. In 2010, the brilliant Lookin At Lucky and Garrett Gomez drew the No. 1 post position, got bounced off the rail twice in the first 150 yards and ran heroically just to finish sixth.
Even for those horses that survive the break, the 20-horse charge down the first homestretch is a wild experience. "It's hard from the get-go," says Smith. "That makes for a tough mile and a quarter."
Desormeaux says, "The crowd is just roaring and it's so crazy, you get horses running faster than they've ever run in their lives."
By the time the field wheels into the first turn, half of the horses are already cooked, worn out by the banging and the sprinting and the dirt (or slop) that they've inhaled, many for the first time in their lives. Then it becomes a horse race. Some horses run too fast on the lead. In 2001, the great Point Given stayed just a little too close to a suicidal pace and was toast in the homestretch. Last year underneath Smith, Palace Malice wore blinkers for the first time and scorched the first half mile -- "Flat ran off on me," says Smith, "which I did not expect" -- and changed the entire complexion of the race. Orb benefited, running down tired horses in the stretch on his way to victory.
But for all of them, the Derby is a moment they chase. There is no race like it, and no victory as meaningful. In 2005 Smith followed yet another fast pace from far behind on longshot Giacomo. "I knew they were cooking," he remembers. "And I knew that meant they were going to slow down and I would have a shot." He rolled beneath the twin spires and hit the wire first. "There was all the noise and then then I hit the finish and everything went quiet for a second," says Smith. "Then ... poom!, all the noise came right back louder than ever."
And like the man said, that's why the Derby is the Derby.