There I was, leaning against the concrete ledge of the winner's circle, only ten feet away from what might be the next Kentucky Derby winner. As I Want Revenge worked below the hallowed twin spires of Churchill Downs, a crowd of spectators leaned against the rail, snapping pictures and marveling at the dark bay horse and his 19-year-old jockey. They're just kids, both of them, and here they are, about to take on the world's best 3-year-old colts and jockeys for a purse of $2 million dollars and a chance at immortality.
The jockey is Joe Talamo, a native of New Orleans who most recently became a star on Animal Planet's reality show Jockeys. They call him a wunderkind, born with a natural talent some jocks take years to perfect. If there was any doubt of his maturity, validation came in Talamo's brilliant ride of I Want Revenge in the Wood Memorial, when the horse got a late start and weaved through traffic to conquer the field by 1 1/2 lengths. Though Talamo's still got a lot to learn, you can't help but think of Steve Cauthen, the youngest jockey ever to win the Triple Crown, when on Affirmed at 18 years old. Theirs is just one of many inspirational stories.
This year's Derby has been hailed as one of the most talented fields in recent memory, even with the deflections of several good horses throughout the week. On Monday, the Florida Derby-winning Quality Road, ended his Derby bid when his recently patched quarter crack began to bleed. Tuesday, word came that Square Eddie, who won the Coolmore Lexington Stakes two weeks ago, would not enter the Derby as he came up with heat in one of his shins. On Wednesday, just before the post position draw, Rebel winner Win Willy was found to have the start of a hairline fracture in his left front ankle and was withdrawn from contention. Up jumped the predestined longshots, Join in the Dance and Nowhere to Hide.
The field is half and half for talent and complete duds, though a couple teeter on breakout performances. As I watched the works this week, I was impressed by two horses I previously hadn't given much thought: General Quarters and Mr. Hot Stuff. While GQ comes with a packaged story worthy of a Hollywood movie, I wasn't ready to warm up to a horse who'd won the Blue Grass Stakes on Polytrack and was beaten by Musket Man in the Tampa Bay Derby on dirt. But looking back on it, GQ has got a lot going for him, and seems to be improving with each day. Mr. Hot Stuff, a full brother to Colonel John, looks like Black Beauty, and his name really suits his attitude on the track. Both of these horses look on the improve, so they may well be around to pick up the pieces should one of the contenders with better credentials falter.
That being said, the horses to beat are I Want Revenge, Pioneerof the Nile, Friesan Fire, Dunkirk, Chocolate Candy, Papa Clem, Regal Ransom, and Desert Party. There's really not anything you can fault I Want Revenge for, except that he's been beaten twice by Pioneerof the Nile-but that was on Santa Anita's Pro-Ride. The son of Steven Got Even has blossomed into a different horse since his transfer to the dirt. He can come from behind or off the pace, can weave through traffic, and is a grinder with heart. In short, he is deserving of being the morning line favorite at 3-1.
Pioneerof the Nile has taken to Churchill's track well, but until he's raced on it, there's just no telling how he will fare when he's getting dirt thrown in his face for the first time. Baffert drew post 16 for him, so the colt will break from the auxiliary gate and may have a chance to stay on the outside of the dust storm. He's won five in a row, a working man's horse, and will pose a real threat should he find good position about five off in the early goings.
Friesan Fire has got an advantage to the other horses in that he loves the dirt, no matter if it's fast or a muddy river. There's a 50/50 chance for rain on Saturday, so if the clouds start to gather, place your bet on this winner of the Louisiana Derby. His only drawback is the distance factor-he's never gone 9 furlongs; but if his winning margins are any indication (won his last two by a combined margin of 9 1/4), he should be able to handle the extra furlong. Friesan Fire may very well be Larry Jones's last shot to win the Kentucky Derby; his horses have finished second two years in a row. Forecast is bright.
If you've been paying attention to the Derby prattle, then you've heard Dunkirk's name thrown about like a hot potato. Everyone seems to think he's the next Big Brown, going into the Kentucky Derby with only three previous starts. The difference is, Brownie had never lost a race before the Derby and won each race by resounding margins; Dunkirk was soundly beaten with no chance of getting past Quality Road in the Florida Derby, though he did run wide and lose some ground. There's no doubt Dunkirk is a good horse. He won an allowance at Gulfstream after being pushed about seven wide into the first turn, managing to dominate the talented field, but he doesn't have the 2-year-old experience, and this year's field is packed with quality Brownie didn't have to contend with. I can see him drowning under the pressure of I Want Revenge, Pioneerof the Nile, and Friesan Fire, though he may show up to his parade yet.
Chocolate Candy is the under-the-radar contender that's seeking a breakout performance. He's another of the never-raced-on-dirt crop, but his late-running style would suit the Derby stretch nicely. Several of the solid contenders in this field are off-the-pace horses, and they may all start their bid for the wire at the same time. Chocolate Candy fits into this group, but it's possible, if he does take to the dirt, he will have the extra leverage that will propel him unlike the Pro-Ride can (of course, the same goes with Pioneer, who's beaten him twice). When I Want Revenge first tried dirt, he exploded as he never had in California. Candy will bring a nice price if he should pull off the victory.
Papa Clem is a California transplant who has taken to the dirt like a pig to the, well, slop. He was second to Friesan Fire in the Risen Star, where the track was a river of mud, and wore down Old Fashioned in the Arkansas Derby to win by a half length. He's by Smart Strike, the sire of such notables as Curlin, English Channel, and Fabulous Strike, so he should feel at home at Churchill. But he's never shown the brilliance of the aforementioned and may not have the talent of some of the others.
As for the two Dubai horses, Regal Ransom and Desert Party, it's hard to know how to compare them to our American runners without the knowledge of the talent they've been pitted against. While Desert Party beat both Vineyard Haven and Regal Ransom in the UAE 2000 Guineas, Haven was spent from the long layoff and didn't put forth the usual effort. Regal Ransom came back to defeat Desert Party in the UAE Derby at a 1 1/8 miles, a distance which Desert Party has never won at. But judging from the huge run Desert Party was putting forth after being swung wide late, it seems he may be able to handle longer distances. Regal Ransom will serve as a competent speedhorse in the Kentucky Derby, and it's perceivable he will get the 1 ¼ distance, as well. He will have a wall of horses charging after him, and it will be a test of his stamina to keep the lead once they head for home. The bad news for Desert Party is that he's breaking from post 19, which suggests he will have to come from either way back, or wide around the turn. It's a long way around for a horse that may be pushing 1 1/4 miles.
There can only be one winner, and with such a talented field for this year's Kentucky Derby, it's a shame so many horses will have their records marred in the packed jumble of horses. I wouldn't be surprised if any of the aforementioned "serious" contenders took the roses this year; factoring in the synthetics horses, who may be witnessing a sloppy track for the first time, and all the late-entering duds, it's truly anyone's game. So will the tenacious I Want Revenge finally beat Pioneerof the Nile, or will the longshot General Quarters complete his rags to riches story in crowning victory? Here, the champions will be put to the test. It's the Kentucky Derby, the marquee event in the Sport of Kings. There's nothing like it in all of sports, a time when the rich and the poor can come together and celebrate a long-standing tradition that is purely American. All of Louisville is humming with the thousands of fans who have descended upon their city from all parts of the world, here to see twenty horses run the greatest two minutes in sports. Hold your breath and try not to blink, because you don't want to miss a moment.
Post Positions, Morning-line Odds, and Notes
1. West Side Bernie (30-1) - Wood proved improved performance, but I'm not convinced.
2. Musket Man (20-1) - Solid horse, but hasn't faced this talent yet. Late stretch run will prove useful.
3. Mr. Hot Stuff (30-1) - Steadily improving, big colt will be better with age.
4. Advice (30-1) - Weak on dirt, not a real threat.
5. Hold Me Back (15-1) - Synthetic specialist; you can find better than him.
6. Friesan Fire (5-1)* - Top candidate will run 10 furlongs for first time. Like his chances.
7. Papa Clem (20-1) - Don't count this one out. Nice last work has sharpened him.
8. Mine That Bird (50-1) - Why? Would be surprised if he finishes in top 10.
9. Join In The Dance (50-1) - Speedball will burn out before final turn.
10. Regal Ransom (30-1) - Will take over where J.I.T.D. left off, but may not be able to sustain lead.
11. Chocolate Candy (20-1)* - Coat is dappling out, like this guy for show. Patient Mike Smith knows when to fire the gun.
12. General Quarters (20-1) - Hasn't faced this talent before, but looks great in workouts. Ran away with Blue Grass, and might be peaking just in time.
13. I Want Revenge (3-1)* - No horse has won the Derby after winning the Gotham and Wood, but he could be the first. Versatile horse in capable young hands.
14. Atomic Rain (50-1) - How many ways can you say "does not belong?"
15. Dunkirk (4-1)* - Talented colt can stay out of trouble on the outside, but may be winded from Florida Derby grinder.
16. Pioneerof the Nile (4-1)* - If he's as good on dirt as he is on synthetics, he's only got to worry about speeding up.
17. Summer Bird (50-1) - He's better than 50-1. Impressive 3rd place run in AK Derby.
18. Nowhere To Hide (50-1) - Another speedbump to better horses.
19. Desert Party (15-1) - Could prove to be a challenger, but outside post and record shows this will be a stretch.
20. Flying Private (50-1) - Would be a big upset, but it's a Wayne Lucas horse, so maybe he's got a bit of his daddy's Pegasus wings on reserve.
*My top 5 picks: 13, 6, 16, 11, 15
The 135th running of the Kentucky Derby airs this Saturday on NBC at 4pm ET. The undercard races can be seen live on HRTV starting with the Churchill Downs Stakes at 1:21pmET.
Don't forget today, Friday May 1st, is the Kentucky Oaks. Bravo will air the Kentucky Oaks at 4:00pm CT.