Scoping Out The Derby

Who's the horse to beat? Who's the hottest trainer? Who's fighting history? Check out our Kentucky Derby tip sheet
May 08, 2005

Don't tell me. The Kentucky Derby is this Saturday, and you're not up to speed. One day you're coming down from the Final Four, ramping up for the NFL draft and finalizing your rotisserie baseball team, and the next thing you know somebody is asking for your pick in the office Derby pool. This is a problem because you don't know Nick Zito from Barry Zito, and you're thinking Jeremy Rose is a tight-end prospect who went in the sixth round of the draft. Relax. Here's a 10-step plan for getting caught up on one of the deepest and most fascinating Derbys in years.

1. It's Nick Zito's world; we're just living in it.

At 57, trainer Zito, a mellowed version of the wired-on-life New Yorker who won the Derby in '91 (with Strike the Gold) and '94 (Go for Gin), is expected to have five starters, 25% of the maxed-out field. Among them are likely favorite Bellamy Road, the towering, dark-bay monster owned by George Steinbrenner; tiny Florida Derby winner High Fly; pure closer Noble Causeway; Tampa Bay Derby winner Sun King; and Andromeda's Hero, who was third in the Arkansas Derby.

In 2002 and 2003 Zito had no Derby starters, a long fall from the early '90s. "Hell, no, I'm not the same guy I was back then," says Zito (above). "I'm human, and I think maybe I'm a little more thankful than the average guy for what I've got now."

2. Why all the buzz about Bellamy Road?

Late on the afternoon of April 9 in the Wood Memorial, Steinbrenner's colt blasted loose from a modest field of Derby hopefuls and won by 17 1/2 lengths. It was the type of performance that left railbirds speechless, equaling a 32-year-old track record and producing a staggering Beyer Speed Figure of 120, the highest recorded in a Derby prep. Javier Castellano--a 27-year-old rising star in the jockey business--scarcely moved on Bellamy Road (below). "He did it so easy, I started screaming," Castellano said last week. "I was thinking about going to the Derby."

Edward Sexton, the feisty 37-year-old Irishman who manages Steinbrenner's farm in Ocala, Fla., had the same premonition when he bought Bellamy Road on April 19, 2004. Steinbrenner had given him a blank check, but Sexton needed only $87,000 to close the deal, meaning that a man who has spent more money on players than anyone in baseball history might win his first Kentucky Derby in five tries with one of the cheapest horses in the field.

3. Will the Derby drought end for one of the sport's top trainers?

Todd Pletcher, 37, oversees a far-flung stable of 155 horses and last year won the Eclipse Award as the nation's top trainer. Since leaving D. Wayne Lukas in 1996 to run his own operation, Pletcher (right) has started nine horses in the Derby and never finished better than second. In short, he's due, and Bandini, a muscular son of 2000 Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus, stands a great chance of getting Pletcher to the winner's circle. Should Bandini, who won the Blue Grass Stakes, fail to fire, Pletcher also has Lexington Stakes winner Coin Silver and Arkansas Derby runner-up Flower Alley.

Bobby Frankel, the former king of the claimers and a five-time Eclipse winner, has two seconds (including favored Empire Maker in 2003), a third and a fourth in the last five Derbys. This year he has Louisiana Derby winner High Limit.

4. Funny Cide meets Smarty Jones.

Two years ago the Kentucky Derby was won by Funny Cide, whose group of everyman owners paid $75,000 for the horse and took the racing world on a rollicking ride through a victory in the Preakness and a Triple Crown near miss in the Belmont. Last year the Derby was won by Smarty Jones, a horse with modest roots from Philadelphia who took the racing world on a rollicking ride through a victory in the Preakness and a Triple Crown near miss in the Belmont.

This year the racing gods have produced Afleet Alex (above), purchased last spring by a Philadelphia-based syndicate of five everyman owners for, you guessed it, $75,000. Alex, named for the children of three of the owners, was second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall in Dallas, where his owners partied with the Funny Cide gang. "We became good friends," says Chuck Zacney, who heads up Cash is King LLC, Afleet Alex's ownership group. "They're big Alex fans." After an eight-length romp in the Arkansas Derby, Alex should also have no shortage of fans at the Churchill Downs betting windows.

5. It's a rider's race.

Twenty horses break from the gate in front of 140,000 roaring spectators, each jockey looking to avoid traffic problems and find the elusive perfect trip. "You've probably got 15 horses who all want to be in the same spot on the racetrack," says three-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert. It's an intensely pressurized experience for veteran jockeys and a sensory explosion for Derby rookies such as Castellano (above) and Jeremy Rose, who will ride Afleet Alex.

Before becoming a jockey some six years ago, Rose, 26, was a talented 103-pound high school wrestler and Penn State football fan in Bellefonte, Pa. "Balance, strength, competitiveness, you need them all in both wrestling and riding," Rose says. He has improved steadily and won the riding title at Oaklawn Park this year, but being aboard a Derby contender raises the stakes. (Inexperience, it should be noted, didn't keep Derby rookie Stewart Elliott from winning on Smarty Jones a year ago.)

6. Do not enter.

Some horses don't belong in the Derby, but some owners and trainers can't resist. Two cases in point: Going Wild, trained by Lukas, has lost his last two races by more than 57 lengths, yet he is expected to start. "I'm going to rely on my 25 years of experience and think I'm O.K.," says Lukas (left). Spanish Chestnut was sixth in two prep races and hasn't won since January. There's an ulterior motive to start him. He is owned by Derrick Smith and Michael Tabor, the same pair that owns Bandini, and he's in the race to press the pace and soften up the likes of Bellamy Road. Derby fever takes all forms.

7. Just enough room.

B. Wayne Hughes, the billionaire founder of Public Storage, is expected to have two starters in the race, although he had to sweat things out. Illinois Derby winner Greeley's Galaxy is trained by 83-year-old Warren Stute (right), who stopped galloping horses only when he suffered a minor stroke two years ago. ("And I wasn't happy about it," he says.) Don't Get Mad romped in the Derby Trial last Saturday at Churchill Downs.

However, Greeley's Galaxy was not nominated to the Triple Crown races, which cost a mere $600 in January and $6,000 in March. Hughes, who is listed by Forbes as the 79th-richest American, can afford the $200,000 supplemental fee to make Greeley's Galaxy eligible, but horses nominated early have precedence over horses that are supplemented. Only when Consolidator pulled out on Monday could Hughes rest easier about getting both horses into the race.

8. History is not on their side.

The last horse to win the Derby after going to the starting gate just twice as a 3-year-old was Sunny's Halo in 1983. Before that, it was Jet Pilot in 1947. Bellamy Road, High Limit (left) and Closing Argument, who was third in the Blue Grass Stakes, have each had just two starts this year.

Wilko has even more than that going against him. Not only has he started just twice this year (he did run a whopping 12 times as a 2-year-old), but he also won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. No horse has won the Juvenile and the Derby.

9. Don't write off the contingent from the West Coast.

Wise guys are roundly trashing the three horses coming to Louisville after running in the April 9 Santa Anita Derby: winner Buzzards Bay (whose trainer, Jeff Mullins, has won the prestigious prep three straight times), third-place finisher Wilko (right) and fourth-place finisher Giacomo. One warning: Since 1980 the Santa Anita Derby has produced seven Derby winners, a rate of success equaled only by the Florida Derby.

10. It's all about the money.

You can go to Louisville--hotel suites run as much as $11,000 for the three-night minimum--and pick the winner. More than $19 million was wagered at the Downs on Derby Day last year. Smarty Jones was syndicated for $40 million. It would cost you $100,000 to have Smarty (below) impregnate your mare. This year the winner gets $1.24 million from the newly doubled purse of $2 million, provided he passes the most exacting drug tests in Derby history, to which all horses in the field will be subjected in the wake of doping scandals in New York and California.

Who will win on Saturday? Count on a sick pace and play a closers-only exacta box with Afleet Alex, Noble Causeway, and Wilko or Don't Get Mad. And buy a $2 win ticket on Bellamy Road, so you'll have a keepsake in case he really is the next superhorse. ■

COLOR PHOTOBill Frakes TUNE-UP With the refurbished Churchill Downs grandstand as a backdrop, Afleet Alex tested the track early on Sunday. SEVEN COLOR PHOTOSBill Frakes COLOR PHOTOMATTHEW STOCKMAN/GETTY IMAGES (BELLAMY ROAD) COLOR PHOTOJOE SKIPPER/REUTERS (WILKO) COLOR PHOTOJAMES CRISP/AP (SMARTY JONES)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)