And They’re Off! Entering the Kentucky Derby Travail

As the year has turned, it isn’t a stretch to begin preparation for the greatest event in horse racing.

Updated: Feb. 1, 2019 • 1:41 PM ET

Barbaro produced one of the most spectacular performances in Kentucky Derby history.

Amid the talk of a polar vortex turning the northern states into that horrid movie “The Day After Tomorrow”, and with another shutdown possibly trumping Washington D.C., thankfully, there’s the dream of the first Saturday in May.

If you’re willing, sometime this week, you might try to pick who you think will win the Kentucky Derby. I know it sounds insanely early, but hold fast. The call to this post has meaning behind it and the risk-reward is tantalizing, all the way to the starting gate.

Through it all, commitment will lead to you watching the workouts, listening to the sound bites from trainers and waiting for the so-called prep races. It’s a grind. Only the strongest, luckiest and most stalwart horses will make it through. And just think, you won’t end up being that person who shows up on Derby Day and picks a horse because its name reminds you of your favorite basketball player.

In the 20 years that I have followed the trail to Churchill, I have only been able to do it once. In 2006, I picked the Michael Matz-trained Barbaro in early February and saw him tear through South Florida like a geriatric in a souped up golf cart, ultimately leading to a romping victory in the Derby.


Sadly, though, at Pimlico in the Preakness, he broke through the gate too early and injured himself. Vets and specialists did their best to try to save him with some of the most advanced medical procedures of the day, but it was to no avail.

Every year at this time, I think about Barbaro. He was eager and loved to run; of course, he did, as he was a race horse. But with Barbaro, you knew he had something special. I’m not sure what was going through his mind when he broke through that gate. His jockey, Edgar Prado, did everything he could to ease him up after he was reloaded and the bell sounded.

It makes me think, was the Derby Trail too hard on him? Was it wrong for me to anticipate that a horse that is only three years old could make it along this gauntlet of peril without incident?

My emotions are mixed on this subject. One part of me enjoys the strategy, the sleepers, following who is still in and not, and how each rung on the ladder presents new challenges.

Tracks across the country hold tiers of races that funnel candidates into a sieve, where horses can accrue enough ‘Derby points” to earn one of the 20 spots on May 4th. It’s like watching March Madness for four months, analogous to seeing Bryce Drew drain game-winner after game-winner, week after week. And, it is odd that excitement can build exponentially for an event that will not last more than three minutes.

In light of what happened to Barbaro, the effects of this travail weigh heavy on my mind. And of course, there are thousands of hopefuls each spring that never make it to Churchill and other Derby champions that DNF during subsequent races — Big Brown comes to mind.

Despite success, others have faced an equally tough go. Justify won last year’s Triple Crown and then had to summarily retire due to injury. Not easy to be a Secretariat nor an American Pharaoh.

This year’s crop of three-year-old males once again reverberates with excitement, but the road is long and winding. Already underway since the fall, the spring brings new hope for would-be contenders.

A new set of races awaits with the February 3 running of the Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park. This track is particularly ripe with talent each year, but strangely has not yielded a strong contingent of Derby winners. Nevertheless, the forthcoming races, Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, will bring notoriety.

Other tracks will have their day in the sun. Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, Aqueduct Racetrack in New York, the Fair Grounds in New Orleans and in April at palatial Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky will all serve as major stops for a bevy of great races.

However, the track that everyone will be watching is Santa Anita Park outside Los Angeles. Home to super trainer Bob Baffert and a host of other talented captains that include two-time Derby winner Doug O’Neill, the track will surely produce several Derby contenders.

Finally, what you might not realize is that the first Saturday in May is about more than just North American entrants. Now, Japan and Europe can claim stalls in the barns at Churchill if they amass enough points. I’m not against this expansion, per se. Internationalism in competition can’t be detrimental.

It becomes more complex, though, when runners from abroad that do not use drugs like Lasix suddenly appear in Louisville and have access to them. I’m not sure that’s fair either way. Maybe what will have to happen is that one of those imports will actually have to win the race. We will see.

As we progress through the cold of winter into the birth of spring, there’s much to look forward to. What is for sure is that this year, the road to the Derby will be full of excitement. More firsts might be in our future.

After all, wasn’t it just last year at this time that few believed a horse that had never run as a two-year-old could win the Derby, let alone the Triple Crown?

As for me, I will be cautiously looking for the next Barbaro, however impossible that might be.

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