It's the first Saturday in May, which means the eyes of many Americans will be focused on the country's most famous horse race this evening, as a group of nineteen horses will try to gain a piece of history at Churchill Downs in the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby.
One year ago, Justify was the winner at Churchill Downs, and went on to become the latest Triple Crown Winner, joining illustrious names like Citation, Secretariat, Affirmed, Seattle Slew and Whirlaway - as only 13 horses have been able to sweep the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes in the same year.
So let's get ourselves to Louisville, Kentucky, and start talking horse racing.
1. The Derby has only seen one sitting President. Before we get to the horses running on Saturday, it is notable that in 145 runnings of this race, only once has a sitting President of the United States shown up at Churchill Downs on race day - that was Richard Nixon in 1969. From personal experience, the race track will have all sorts of politicians inside from both sides of the aisle. One time my father saw the mayor of a very large city at Churchill Downs and asked him why he didn't seem to be betting. His answer was very instructive. The mayor said he let his wife make his bets, because he figured people would see him at the betting window, and wrongly conclude that he was gambling with government money instead of his own.
2. Next year will mark 50 years of Gonzo. The year after Richard Nixon attended, writer Hunter S. Thompson brought his own unique brand of journalism to Churchill Downs, creating the epic story, "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved," a tale of heavy drinking, tall tales, and more, from inside the gates at Churchill Downs. Amplified by the famous sketches of British artist Ralph Steadman, Thompson left his mark in many ways on the race. "Just pretend you're visiting a huge outdoor loony bin," Thompson explained to Steadman the day before the race, trying to describe the scene in the Churchill Downs infield. "Thousands of raving, stumbling drunks, getting angrier and angrier as they lose more and more money," Thompson wrote. "By mid afternoon they'll be guzzling mint juleps with both hands and vomiting on each other between races." Make sure to read it, because there are political overtones which might sound familiar today as well. "We don't need your kind in Kentucky," Thompson said as he literally dropped Steadman at the airport after the race. Do yourself a favor - read this.
3. So many ways to pick a winner in the Derby. My mother used to send my father to the race track on Derby Day, and told him to bet every horse to win, just so she could say she had the winner. If you do that on Saturday, it would cost you $38 for a $2 win ticket on all 19 horses. Some years, it might pay off with a big longshot, but for the last six years, the winner of the Derby has been the betting favorite, which means lots of people are winning, and the payoff is not large. The last horse to win with double digit odds was I'll Have Another in 2012 at 15-1, as everyone dreams about having a flyer on a horse like Mine That Bird in 2009, which paid $103.20 for every $2 win ticket. I'm sorry to say that it's been 24 years since I've been to the Kentucky Derby - I won that day with Thunder Gulch, who left the starting gate at 25-1. I think it was the only winning ticket I cashed all day.
4. Pick a color, pick a name. Just pick a horse. Let's get down to business, most of you reading this will not have gone to the store and bought the Daily Racing Form, or even downloaded the Derby card online. It's simple stuff, like you have a lucky number, or you like the colors of one of the horses, or even the name. I remember taking a date to the Preakness and she played a triple on the big race - which I thought was crazy - but I made sure to bet the same thing after she left the window, just in case she won (I wanted to win too). In the halls of Congress, I know a few reporters who will be doing their homework today. "Have you looked at the race?" one of those inveterate gambling reporters asked me in the lunch line on Friday. For some lawmakers, the race was on their mind as well.
5. No one will beat Secretariat's time on Saturday. No matter who wins the 145th Kentucky Derby, the winner probably will not run in less than two minutes, as the record set by Secretariat in 1973 - 1:59 2/5 - has stood the test of time for 45 years. Other than Sham - who finished second to Secretariat - the only other horse to run under 2:00 in the Derby was the 2001 winner Monarchos. When Secretariat won, he broke the record previously held by the great Northern Dancer. Watch the race from 1973, with the call by the great Chick Anderson. As the famous sportscaster Heywood Hale Broun remarked later, Secretariat was going so fast, that if the race had gone for another half mile, he might have taken to the sky.
6. The weather could play a big factor. Recent Derby Days have been wet, and Saturday may be no different in Louisville, as the weather forecast calls for a 90 percent chance of rain. If that's the case, then you want to look for horses who have done well on wet tracks, or might be bred by a horse who had that type of success. #1 War of Will won his first race on a sloppy track at Churchill Downs last November. #3 By My Standards finished second in the slop at Churchill on the same day. #5 Improbable was second in the mud in the Arkansas Derby. #7 Maximum Security won going away in the mud in Florida. #8 Tacitus won by a neck in New York on a wet track. #9 Plus Que Parfait had a second place finish in the slop in a top race at Churchill Downs. And #19 Spinoff won his first race on a wet track.
7. The field is now at 19 horses. The scratch of early favorite Omaha Beach has been followed up with the scratch of #11 Haikal, who made a late run in the Wood Memorial in New York (and had attracted my never-ending search for the late-running-horse-with-long-odds in the Derby). Bodexpress is the lucky horse which was allowed into the field to fill one of those spots.
8. Time for a pick. Or two. Or three. I'll be honest, there aren't many times when I just bet one horse in the Kentucky Derby. It's often a wide open race. There is money to be made in the exotic bets (just ask whose 10 year old keeps asking about when he should give me his superfecta picks) and there's always that pride of picking the winner - especially when you do it in public. I'm a sucker for long shots, and lightly raced horses who can make a big jump (or completely flop). For my high school French teacher, I like #9 Plus Que Parfait. In the lightly raced category, there's #19 Spinoff. And if forced to pick one of the favorites, I'll go with Game Winner, since he won at Churchill last year in the Breeder's Cup Juvenile, and has raced all over. But who knows. Just enjoy the most famous two minutes in sports in the United States on Saturday evening.
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