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What we learned at the Derby


Here are my five quick thoughts from a wild, wet and wooly Kentucky Derby:

• Validation for Todd Pletcher -The former understudy to D. Wayne Lukas took out on his own about 15 years ago, and quickly supplanted his old boss as America's preeminent trainer of thoroughbreds. But despite running 24 horses in the Kentucky Derby in the last decade, Pletcher had yet to win even once ... until Saturday.

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 CalvinBorel (more about him later), Super Saver saved ground on the rail most of the way around the track, while rating off of a stiff early pace. He was in perfect position to pick off the crumbling leaders as the field entered the stretch, and he had more than enough in reserve to hold off the late charges from Ice Box and Paddy O'Prado.

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.

• Calvin Borel is the Derby king - Calvin Borel has now won the Derby twice in a row, and three times in the last four years. When he won aboard Mine That Bird last year, I noted that he wasn't often thought of in the first flight of today's top riders. That is obviously no longer true. The 43-year-old Cajun is big-time, and will go down in history as one of the Derby's all-time great riders.

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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, Bo-rail -- was doing their damndest to keep their horses off the rail, even if only by a few feet. The winner, on the other hand, seemed to be riding right up against it.

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.

• Pace makes the race - As I noted, the stiff early fractions run by the leading tandem of Conveyance and Sidney's Candy, had as much to do with Super Saver's victory as Borel's flawless ride. The opening quarter mile went by in 22 3/5 seconds, and the half in 46 seconds flat. Conveyance and Sidney's Candy had five lengths on the next-closest horse, and by the time they'd run another four furlongs, they were done.

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.

• Going forward - Super Saver was sired by the late stallion Maria's Mon, who also gave the world Monarchos, winner of the 2001 Kentucky Derby. There is class and stamina all over Super Saver's pedigree, indicating that the horse has the genes to go the classic distances. He entered the Derby with questions about how well he could do going 1¼ miles, but he answered them emphatically.

Derby-winning trainer BobBaffert likes to say that the horse who wins in Kentucky is usually still the best horse two weeks later in the Preakness. There seems to be a good chance this year that Super Saver will arrive at Belmont in five weeks with a chance to win the first Triple Crown since 1978.

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.

• Still the best. Period. - I said it last year, and I'll say it again. There is no sporting event in America quite as great as the Kentucky Derby. The weather was miserable at Churchill Downs, and still the track drew upwards of 100,000 fans. The racing industry is going through very tough economic times (as documented in this excellent story by Joe Drape, of The New York Times, but you wouldn't know it from the show that went off. The race itself lacked a clear favorite, and yet now a horse has emerged that seems to have a legitimate shot at being very, very good.

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.