What we learned at the Derby
Here are my five quick thoughts from a wild, wet and wooly Kentucky Derby:
For a man with such a powerful stable, Pletcher was the focus of considerable sympathy this week in Louisville. He had arrived in Kentucky with the overwhelming Derby favorite, Eskendereya -- winner of both the Fountain of Youth Stakes and the Wood Memorial -- was supposed to be the colt to finally break his trainer's Kentucky jinx. But Pletcher had been forced to scratch Eskendereya last Saturday after he found swelling in the colt's left front leg.
It was a crushing blow. Yes, Pletcher had four other horses entered in the race, but none of them were as highly regarded as Eskendereya. One of the four, Super Saver, was a hard-trying runner who had won just once in his last four races -- and that had been last November.
But that, as they say, is why races are run. Under a tremendous ride from jockey
For all of Pletcher's success, it's somehow fitting that instead of winning the Kentucky Derby with a super horse, he has won it with a 9-1 shot. The Derby is the great leveler of sports, where money and power and fame guarantee nothing. Nobody knows that now better than Pletcher himself.
Borel gave Super Saver a magnificent ride, guiding him along the rail for over a mile, saving ground all the way, before edging out slightly at the top of the stretch to take the lead. With 20 horses, the Derby can often be a bumpy affair, especially in the first turn. But Super Saver seemed to be running in a race of his own, clear of his competitors by several lengths either way. Part of this can be attributed to the strong early pace, which stretched out the field and kept it from bunching up. But what became crystal clear from overhead replays of the race was that everybody but Borel -- excuse me,
Perhaps the other riders thought it was too soupy in there after all the rain that fell on Louisville Saturday. But Borel knew better. Maybe he'd been watching the pre-race coverage on NBC, which-in one of the only useful and interesting segments of the afternoon -- had demonstrated that the track was firm right along the rail, turned to muddy slop just a little further out, then firmed up again toward the center of the track. And, if you watch replays of the race, you'll see that those are the very lanes used by the horses who were running at the end.
That set the race up for the closers, including second-place Ice Box and third-place Paddy O'Prado. And of course, there was Super Saver, who came from further off the pace in this race than he ever had before. Credit this to Borel, who performed a delicate balancing act early, letting the colt break quickly from the fourth position, and then settling him gently along the rail.
In an unusual move, Borel guaranteed today that he and Super Saver would win the Triple Crown. Maybe so, but I still winced a little when he said it. Racing fans have seen too many close calls in the last 15 years to put much faith in anything anymore.
There is no day quite like Derby day. It's long. It's loud. It's frequently sloppy (if it's not the weather, it's the julep-filled revelers). And with 20 horses, it's one of the wildest races you're ever likely to see. And yet every year, it produces order, and beauty, from chaos. Not bad for the greatest two minutes in sports.