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There are two kinds of sports fans, at least in these parts.
Those who bet and those who don't. But gamblers see their games forever differently, because the inner game of the wager tints whatever is going on in the field.
In the old days, when you used to see No Gambling signs posted around the ballpark, the product was sometimes so bad that betting was the only way to enjoy yourself out at the yard.
These days, baseball games are taken out of the hands of the best pitchers and players, making handicapping impossible. Football is an inhuman, militaristic industry and not a game or a sport, civilian casualties be damned. And basketball is too painful to watch even with a wager down.
But we do have Thoroughbred horse racing, and specifically, this weekend's 143rd Kentucky Derby.
Unlike the Super Bowl, Patriots versus the NFC Patsies every year, where coaches get ego cute and players fruitlessly pound their chests as usual not realizing it's the biggest moment of their lives, the Derby promises a new, young group every year.
Some of the biggest names in horse training have never won this race. These 3-year-olds are being told to get it together and go to work, you're not a kid anymore, even when they kind of are and are not yet what they will become, successful or not.
The 20 contenders might mature more this week than in their lives, coping with the tremendous crowds at Louisville's Churchill Downs, and the idiocy of the loudspeakers and steroid-gorged video screens. Some are based at Churchill, some spend a couple weeks, some come in as few as 72 hours before the race.
They can't talk, which is fine with me, so we're spared all forms of bulletin board fodder postured from behind stupid, IQ-revealing tweets.
Sure, the distasteful pressure of American spectacle has made real inroads on the Derby and "the demographic" speaks as television focuses a lot on the pomp and the pretense. But while you bet on the Super Bowl based on who you think will win, never dreaming of a Pete Carroll blunder, once you wager a Derby horse, he's my horse, or your horse.
But I don't pay attention to the fluff and you don't have to either. You can spend your time handicapping all the other great races, Friday and Saturday. And TV does a good job with the backstories.
In post-position order:
1. Lookin At Lee (20-1 morning line odds)
Third in the Arkansas Derby (number 6), 'Lee fell well behind early and bided his time, making a move on the far turn. Blocked six out from the rail, he veered inside, too late it turned out to command the rail, but danced strong, closing at the wire. He'll need all the racing luck he can get Saturday. Starting out of the one post, he's a closer who can't get suckered into any kind of a quick pace, but will spend energy staying up and out of trouble. He's run against some decent company; trainer Steve Asmussen figures he'll be running late. He hasn't won since last August in the Ellis Park Juvenile. Fully capable, but it looks like he'll have too much to do from the one post.
2. Thunder Snow (20-1)
So impressive in a gutty, record win in the UAE Derby in March, trainer Saeed bin Suroor tries yet again to ship from the Emirates and try to win this race. It hasn't happened yet. Winner of three straight, this one is considered a turf horse. He probably has only two good things going for him in Kentucky: jockey Christophe Soumillon and possibly a wet track. But we don't know if he'll take exceptionally well to the surface. He's enough of a fish out of water to preclude a win here.
3. Fast and Accurate (50-1)
Hello Ma. Hello Pa. I know his sire Hansen cost you money and this one runs on plastic and grass, but can you see your way to love him anyway, please? No.
4. Untrapped (30-1)
Another distance-challenged suspect. My fear is that at 50 or 60-1, he might get up at the bottom of the superfecta, as long as everything falls apart in front of him. Even then, 10 furlongs aren't his cup of tea. He has no distance pedigree, challenged to run any more than eight furlongs. Asmussen, all-time winningest trainer, has never won the Derby and he won't win with this one. Read on.
5. Always Dreaming (5-1)
Once the Derby Futures favorite, this son of Bodemeister looks to have all the chance. Winner of three straight, his lone stakes win was the Florida Derby on April 1, in which he improved 26 Beyer Speed Figure points. But he's had it easy and will get into traffic he's never experienced. The 97 Beyer in Florida and Johnny Velazquez aboard give trainer Todd Pletcher a good chance. Bad news is that he's very difficult to control, requiring controlling draw reins in workouts. If JV and 'Dreaming can control the energy, he's good. 5-1 or lower may not be good value, 2-1 would stink.
6. State of Honor (30-1)
This one has a bad case of seconditis. His last win was in October in a maiden special weight on the artificial at Woodbine. He's 10-1-4-2. He's been running alongside some of these and he looks to have heart, but his only chance is in the exotics . . . aw, just forget it.
7. Girvin (15-1)
This horse has problems, foot problems including a quarter (hoof) crack. Since winning the Louisiana Derby, his training has been interrupted, he's been in a hyperbaric chamber, and he's been swimming instead of jogging the track. He'll be wearing bar shoes, which have more steel on them than the usual U-shaped shoe. They're easier on his feet but compromise his traction. Big Brown did this with bad feet, but he was a freak of nature. Not this guy.
8. Hence (15-1)
Looking like the wiseguy of the field, Hence made his bones with a commanding move and win in the Sunland Derby, as key a race as there's been this year. Several horses in that race went on to do well and improve in important races. Showing a closing knack and a 97 Beyer in the Sunland, Hence looks like he can close from a couple different tiers, and did the same thing in the slop at Oaklawn, although he clunked in the Southwest, also at Oaklawn. I'm nervous about his price, feeling I'm entitled to a minimum 10-1.
9. Irap (20-1)
We see in Irap a 10-point Beyer improvement (93, not great) in an upset win in the Blue Grass Stakes on April 8. But he was 0-7 before that. May need the fast track he had at Keeneland and didn't show well in his one slop race. Big colt should be able to hold his own in traffic, and he showed great fortitude at Keeneland, but will need a moderate or slower pace and clear sailing. Even then, others look better.
10. Gunnevera (15-1)
Everybody now, scratch your heads. He did not need the Florida Derby but impressed in the Fountain of Youth in March and the Delta Jackpot last November. He's run on a wet track. On a down-up cycle, this one is up. Has also run against much of the class of this field. But JJ Castellano took him back in Florida and I don't like to see that. It's confusing. And besides the FOY and Saratoga Special against no one last summer, he hasn't done much. But he looks capable, on a good day. That's the dilemma. But 12-1 or better is requested, just askin'.
11. Battle of Midway (30-1)
For some reason, I like this horse. He showed a lot of heart in the Santa Anita Derby, trying hard to take the rail in a race that has been roundly criticized for its slowness. His 88 Beyer in that race will scare many off. Not running at 2-years-old, he'll be running under the "curse" of Apollo, the only horse to win the Kentucky Derby without running at two. That was in 1882. But he seems to love being in the mix and has the pedigree to get the distance. He's won under Flavien Prat. I'm in.
12. Sonneteer (50-1)
We hope things eventually go better for this horse, but he may just be in the middle of a Rod Serling script. Sonneteer will try to become the first maiden to win the Kentucky Derby since Broker's Tip in 1933. You remember him, and that race. That's the one where 'Tip's jockey, Don Meade, and Herb Fisher, aboard Head Play, literally got into a rasslin' match AS THEY APPROACHED THE FINISH LINE.
It's also the only race, in 14 starts, that Broker's Tip ever won. In his life. It made all the papers.
We've seen Kent Desormeaux turn in some curious rides, but not like this. And Sonneteer is the son of Midnight Lute, two-time winner of the Breeders' Cup SPRINT and the 2007 SPRINT Horse of the Year. Why is he in this race?
13. J Boys Echo (20-1)
The son of Mineshaft impressed in the Gotham two back, running a 102 Beyer against nobody, but was hassled out of the gate in the Blue Grass and finished fourth, more than six back. He lost regular rider Robby Albarado, a very experienced Churchill jockey, to an ankle injury and will be piloted by Luis Saez. Four others in this race have beaten him and you wonder who he's beaten, which is why he has struggled for respect this spring. That 102 looks more and more like a giraffe to me. In the 13 hole, he may not be able to get the close-but-not-far-back position he needs, unless a few take off. Although he may take some wiseguy money, get a price on a flyer.
14. Classic Empire (4-1) Your pre-race favorite, this son of Pioneerof the Nile and half-brother to American Pharoah, is considered the most talented horse in the race. Winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Two-Year-Old Horse of the Year, he's faced adversity this year. After a bad third in the Holy Bull, his class showed in winning the Arkansas Derby, basically just three weeks ago. With training disruptions and very little racing this year, will he have the foundation? He's won at Churchill twice, including in the slop. I don't like Julien Leparoux aboard and trainer Mark Casse clearly has his fingers crossed. I think he needs to prove more, at a better price. But Saturday, he just might. Favorites have won the last four Derbies.
15. McCraken (5-1)
This is a good news-bad news horse. The son of Ghostzapper, he won his first four, running a 95 Beyer in the Sam F. Davis, the local prep to the Tampa Bay Derby. He's also won three times at Churchill Downs, including the Kentucky Jockey Club. Trainer Ian Wilkes is great at getting a horse ready for a big race. Although prominent early on the Road to the Roses, McCraken hasn't impressed with the company he's keeping and his Beyers, save for a 95 in the Davis, have been lackluster. He beat Tapwrit in the Davis and then regressed in an unimpressive, dull effort in the Blue Grass against the best horses he's faced. The talking heads will be touting this horse too much, but he'll need to show me a lot more before I believe, and the Kentucky Derby is a hell of a place to try it.
16. Tapwrit (20-1)
Starting just to the outside of McCraken, we can say some of the same things about him. The Tapit colt stayed in Florida and won the Tampa Bay Derby, beating not much in the way of classic distance horses, then finished a get-the-binoculars 12 lengths back in fifth in the Blue Grass. But he's also got sire Tapit, a great race horse and one of the leading sires in the world, running through his veins. If McCraken and Tapwrit want to duke it out back in the pack, fine by me. They had better both be a price but between the two, I'd take Tapwrit and his back class.
17. Irish War Cry (6-1)
The quality son of Curlin beat Gunnevera and Classic Empire in the Holy Bull, which turned out to be a key race, clunked in the Fountain of Youth and came back to win the Wood Memorial. Two 100+ Beyers. He's never run in the mud, but his Tomlinson (wet) rating is a lofty 435! Born May 2, 2014, the New Jersey-bred is the youngest horse in the field. He's in a surprisingly decent post position and has every right to win this race. If he goes 6-1, I will run between the raindrops to take it.
18. Gormley (15-1)
Jockey Victor Espinoza has won three Derbies (War Emblem, California Chrome, American Pharoah) and trainer John Shireffs of Zenyatta fame stunned this race with longshot Giacomo. But they're not running, Gormley is. The West Coast invader won the Santa Anita Derby at a slow 1:51 and has won three other stakes races, and the Sham Stakes was in the slop. Lost to Mastery at fourth in San Felipe and barely beat American Anthem, both early wonderboys who are off the Derby trail. Not sure who he's beaten except maybe Battle of Midway. Might be the best of those who are left from California, which isn't saying a lot. He's a professional, but he'll need to show a lot more speed. Call me at 10 minutes to post.
19. Practical Joke (20-1)
With Chad Brown training and Joel Rosario aboard, you have to take a look. But when you do, you see a then-and-now picture that says he shouldn't be in this race. Winner of his first three, including the Hopeful at Saratoga and the Champagne at Belmont, both Grade Is, last fall, he's lost his last three by a combined 15 lengths in the Breeders Cup Juvenile, Fountain of Youth and Blue Grass. The difference? Distance. He worked his way up to eight furlongs at Belmont, but past that at 8.5, 8.5 and 9, no dice. He also hasn't done a thing around two turns, an important rite of passage for a horse who hopes to win the Derby. He should have overtaken Irap in the Blue Grass. Jump on this guy later on this summer when he cuts back in distance.
20. Patch (30-1)
The ladies in stylish hats will either say AWW or EWW when they learn that Patch has only one eye, his right. He lost it with some sort of unexplained infection at two years old. There have been vision-impaired horses before, so don't panic, he'll be fine. Although is drawing the far outside post some sort of joke? While all of his races have been one-eyed, it put off racing at two, so he'll be running under the shroud of Apollo. The son of Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags, Patch has only run three times, admirably, with a second in the Louisiana Derby, where he showed he won't take no crap from nobody. He starts from the 20 post, so he'll need some maneuvering to see what's happening. The price? Who knows? But I'll probably fly on him.
There is a true lack of a clearly outstanding horse - it's an especially weak crop this year - and the nearly ridiculous 20-horse field severely reducesthe luck quotient, but it's still the Kentucky Derby and the winner will still live forever. The field and the weather, rain expected all weekend, should make this a potentially great wagering race.
And we know how betting is a good way to enjoy yourself.
So, who to like?
I'm singular on Hence, Battle of Midway, Irish War Cry, Always Dreaming and Gunnevera because he has the capabilty of breaking my heart.
I'm not sold on Classic Empire or McCraken, but I don't want them to beat me either.
I'll fly on J Boys Echo and Lookin At Lee. And Patch, even though he could get bet way down by the motherly types. I just like his kickass mentality.
NBC Sports Network will cover Kentucky Oaks Day and begin on Kentucky Derby Day before handing off to NBC network for the big race.
Friday 5:30, NBCSN, try to catch My Kentucky Home. It's a sappy tribute to Tom Hammonds, the Kentucky Wildcats and bourbon, but also the horses in whatever order. But at the beginning, Hammonds pays a visit to American Pharoah. What a nice guy. And he does the "You talkin' 'bout me?" routine. Man, the Pharoah looks great!
Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.
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