Monday, April 26, 2010

By the way, there’s a race, too

If you can manage to put down that mint julep for 120 seconds and fix your eyes on the TV screen, you’re in for one of the greatest spectacles in all of sports.

Only a few thousand people attended the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, but now hundreds of thousands cram the infield and the rickety grandstand at Churchill Downs in Louisville for the big race, where fans sing a cleaned-up version of Stephen Fosters “My Old Kentucky Home” as the horses jog out to the starting gate.

Befitting its international renown, the Derby typically draws a field of nearly two dozen 3-year-olds — and as they leap from the starting gate, the track looks more like a Wild West stampede than one of the most important races on the circuit.

The horse that jumps to the lead by the first turn automatically becomes the bar crowd favorite, but only rarely in thoroughbred racing does a horse go wire-to-wire. How will you know if it’s likely to happen? When you’re watching on TV, little numbers periodically show up in the top corner of the screen to indicate the split time of the leader. If the number is less than :24 after the first quarter-mile, or less than :47 at the half-mile pole, the front-runner will fade.

And as the field turns for home, if the leader’s split time is less than 1:36, he’s done.

Handicapping the field is always a nightmare at the Derby — mostly because the sheer size of the field has encouraged longshots over the years. But here are a few rules:

1. Never count out the New York horse: Though no New Yorker has won the Derby since Funny Cide in 2003, this year’s Empire State favorite, Eskendereya, is coming off a big win in our own Wood Memorial, New York’s main Derby tuneup. He’ll likely be the favorite.

2. Who knows what to make of the California horses?: Horses that take the West Coast route to the Derby are no longer predictable, as their Derby tuneups are run on synthetic tracks. You never know how those colts and fillies will run on the comparative beach at Churchill Downs.

3. The Calvin factor: Jockey Calvin Borel has won two of the last three Derbies, last year on Mine That Bird, one of the longest shots to ever win the Run for the Roses. A $2 bet paid $103.20.

4. Bet on Todd Pletcher: Trainer Todd Pletcher, who worked under four-time Derby-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas, will have at least three horses, though as many as six, at the starting gate. He’s a hot trainer right now, so don’t count him out.

But whatever you do, put down $2 on someone. At the Derby, you never know.

-Gersh Kuntzman


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