As traditional to Americans as celebrating non-important dates in Mexican history in early May, the Kentucky Derby is one of my favorite Olde Tyme events of sport throughout the year. Normally the Derby finds me out of town for a wedding and sneaking away to a bar for a few hours, leading to the inevitable questions from everyone watching—"What time does this thing start? I thought the TV said three?"—and from my wife—"Why are you watching horse racing?"
This year, however, I will be watching from the comfort of my basement, drunk on bourbon, overstuffed on hot browns, and probably making a mess of my seersucker. As Bart Scott would say, can't wait.
To preview tomorrow's derby and talk of Derby memories past, we sat down with the biggest horse racing aficionados we know: Saint Louis Post-Dispatch sports columnist and multimedia superstar Bernie Miklasz; the highly esteemed Josh Bacott from Joe Sports Fan (he's essentially this generation's Jay Randolph Sr when it comes to the Saint Louis pony scene); and our industry insider Ben Mikesell, who works at a thoroughbred farm outside of Cincinnati, OH (he smells of horse afterbirth and torn up ticket stubs.)
What is your favorite Derby memory?
Ben: Unbridled's 1990 triumph. My uncle was/is in the horse business. He always talked about how Carl Nafzger did the right thing by a horse, so if he had a colt in the Derby to pay attention. I'll never forget Nafzger calling the race to Unbridled's owner, Frances Genter, a widow who had kept the family farm going for almost 20 years after her husband's death. The tiny, 92-year-old woman couldn't see over the crowd (even seated in the owners' row of boxes), so Nafzger described the race for her. Luckily, it was caught by ABC and has become one of the most iconic videos in Kentucky Derby history: "He's going to win! I love you, Mrs. Genter!" It was also the first Derby that I watched at Keeneland, in Lexington, to bet the simulcast before my Mom's Derby Party. I left with a $10 Win ticket that paid $118
Josh: Probably Smarty Jones winning it in the slop in '04. I just latched onto him earlier that year as the horse I was pulling for and obviously he had a pretty good run at the Triple Crown. Didn't hurt that I won some money on him. A close second was that time I went to the Derby Infield and watched a few drunken goons race across the johnny-on-the-spots. It was inspiring.
Bernie: It has to be 1979, the year that Spectacular Bid nearly won the Triple Crown. It was a Maryland-based horse, and the owners were well known in Baltimore, and of course the three Baltimore newspapers gave considerable coverage to Bid. He was indeed a spectacular horse, with a colorful and often profane trainer named Grover "Buddy" Delp. And his jockey was a young, dumb kid from a blue-collar neighborhood just outside of the city. Name was Ron Franklin. Anyway, it was just very exciting, after a long build-up to see Spectacular Bid win the Kentucky Derby and do so in impressive fashion.
What do you look forward to the most about the Kentucky Derby every year?
Ben: There are two things that I look forward to on the first Saturday in May. The first is the buildup, and teardown, of the various prospects on the Derby Trail. It's great to see the "experts" jump on and off various horses' bandwagons. The injuries pile up and knock out some of the favorites to take home the Roses, and the "smart money" goes to some odd horse the week of the Derby. This is the one time of year when a racing fan gets months of rumors and wild predictions. The Breeders Cup may be the best two days or racing, especially gambling-wise, but nothing beats the Kentucky Derby for lead-up coverage.
I also look forward to the parties, naturally. It's the best time of year in Kentucky, as everyone is abuzz with Derby Fever.
Josh: I've been to the Derby a few times and what I look forward to when I'm there is just the buzz that takes over Churchill right as they're loading the horses in. You don't even have to be a horse racing fan to enjoy it and recognize that the moment right before they open the gates is an atmosphere that is tough to duplicate. When I'm stuck at home watching it on TV, it's just fun to go in without any true allegiances (other than a few dollars) and enjoy watching what you hope will be the first step in a historic three-race storyline.
Bernie: Trying to figure it out. It's become an increasingly difficult race to handicap. The field is too large, which ensures traffic jams. Many a terrific horse has gotten a bad trip because of the heavy traffic and can't find a clear lane to victory. But on the other hand, there's a distinct possibility of a huge payoff. The favorites often fail, which sets the race up for longshots. There's also the inexperience factor; so many of these horses are immature and not consistent in form. They're like awkard teenagers. Which one is ready to grow up? This is a confusing puzzle, but trying to put it all together is fascinating. And satisfying when you actually cash a winning ticket. But even more than that is the pure thrill of those splendid 3-year-olds being loaded into the gate, right before the start of the race. The Kentucky Derby is still the most prestigious and important race of the year, and that last-minute anticipation before the start makes my heart thump every single time.
Any particular storylines you are excited for this year?
Ben: Without a doubt, the two best stories in this year's Kentucky Derby are the connections of Archarcharch and Mucho Macho Man. Archarcharch is the first Derby starter for one of the most respected jockeys in the business, Jon Court, and the trainer happens to be his father-in-law. Mucho Macho Man's trainer, Kathy Ritvo, had a heart transplant three years ago.
But the story that I'm most closely following is Rosie Napravnik making her Derby debut aboard Pants On Fire. She is one of the best young jockeys in the business. She not only won the Louisiana Derby on Pants On Fire, but was the Leading Jockey at Fair Grounds, a first for a woman. She has an unlimited future, and I'm looking forward to seeing how she does on racing's biggest stage.
Josh: Uncle Mo is sort of interesting. The early stages of his career sort of mirror Secretariat and I'm sure NBC will play up that angle on Saturday. He was a 2-year old champ and looked like the dominant horse as a 3-year old. Then he lost as a heavy favorite in the Wood Memorial prep race so everyone started doubting that he was as good as advertised. He even had a sketchy excuse as to why he got whipped like Secretariat did going into the Derby.
I guess we'll see if Uncle Mo can win the Derby in record time, destroy everyone by historic margins on his way to the Triple Crown and eventually have a Disney movie made about him starring the chick from Unfaithful. Odds aren't good of all that happening.
Bernie: Pretty simple: who will step up? This entire field has pretty much been dismissed as a collection of slow, mediocre talent. The veteran handicappers, who are very serious about this stuff, are openly disdainful of this group. (Think of it as the NFC West.) They don't expect to be impressed. Wouldn't it be fun if one of these horses emerged to blow away the field to give this new racing season a instant star?
There are a couple of interesting, more specific story lines. Uncle Mo was supposed to be the king, but he was dull in the Wood Memorial, and no one is quite sure what to expect. Heck, Secretariat ran a poor race in the Wood Memorial in 1973, and a lot of people had questions about Secretariat going into the Kentucky Derby. And we know how that turned out.
There is also Ritvo, coming off the heart transplant less than three years ago. She's made a strong personal comeback. The horse has a chance to win this thing; no woman trainer has ever saddled a Kentucky Derby champion. If Mucho Macho Man and Ritvo pull this off, producers will be throwing cash down to secure the film rights.
Who do you like to win?
Ben: I don't think Uncle Mo is the same horse as he was last year as Champion 2YO, and even without the virus I would be totally throwing him out of my bets. My third choice is the Santa Anita Derby winner, Midnight Interlude. I was prepared to make Archarcharch my absolute top pick until he drew the rail. I still think Court can get him into a nice place right behind the wall of early leaders. I'm not going to leave him out altogether, but instead of loading up on the Arkansas Derby winner, I'm going to spread out my tickets. I have consistently touted European horses coming over but have always been wrong. I think this crop of American 3YOs is one of the weakest in memory, so I'm backing Irish-based Master of Hounds to win after running second in the Dubai Derby.
Good luck to all who bet. And enjoy bourbon, not a mint julep, as they sing "My Old Kentucky Home."
Josh: Uncle Mo is who I'll be pulling for. Horse racing is the one sport where I'm a sucker and root for the best chance at a truly dominant champion. He's got the best chance at becoming that in my opinion. Others I'm considering throwing into some bets are Archarcharch, Midnight Interlude, and Dialed In. I won't be upset if Mucho Macho Man wins mainly because of the obvious references to Randy Savage that will be sitting on a tee for the media.
Bernie: I haven't made up my mind just yet. And I want to wait until Saturday to see if there's a track bias. Churchill Downs has been kind of strange this week. No one is sure how the track will play Saturday. Will it favor speed? The rail? Will the middle of the track be the fast lane? Hard to know right now. However. I think Shackleford is really rounding into form, seems to be on the upswing, and has the kind of early speed to. I'll probably box Shackleford with a couple of closers, Archarcharch and Nehro. And I will slip Decisive Moment into some of my combinations because he'll go off at a big price and has a chance to steal this thing. But this is the most wide open Kentucky Derby of my lifetime.
Our thanks to Bernie, Ben and Josh for joining us. You can follow Josh on twitter @JBacott, Bernie @miklasz, and Ben @BenMikesell. Enjoy the derby folks! And, if you especially love olde tyme sports, be sure to catch Manny Pacquiao take on Shane Mosley with Gus Johnson ringside later Saturday night on Showtime!
(Update, Friday 9:26 CDT: Uncle Mo has been scratched from the race. This is the most disappointing thing to happen to an Uncle Mo since Moe Szyslak closed down Uncle Moe's Family Feedbag.)