LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The Kentucky Derby and Oaks horses that don't train well this week at Churchill Downs have a rendezvous with regret.
The garlands and the trophies, the victories and the various numbers -- they all represent achievement and offer some metric of accomplishment. They might indicate a level of talent or imply a summit of potential; they might even indicate who possesses the requisite ability and stamina to win a Derby or an Oaks. But other questions remain. And when all the dreams and plans converge on a singular moment, it's those other questions that often determine who's in the winner's circle.
The Kentucky Derby represents a unique confluence of circumstances that can either intimidate or challenge, and so which will it be? Who's handling the Churchill Downs surface, which, according to some, can be idiosyncratic? And, most importantly, who's approaching the race of a lifetime?
The horses themselves have the answers. Some are more demonstrative and candid than others, but most of them indeed respond to the essential questions, if only we'll listen and watch.
Two horses make the point. In 1990, after Unbridled won the slowest Florida Derby in 35 years, he finished third in the Blue Grass Stakes behind Summer Squall. And so for the Kentucky Derby, most of the handicapping pundits focused on Summer Squall and Santa Anita Derby winner Mister Frisky, with a few rebels straying in the direction of Wood Memorial winner Thirty Six Red and Arkansas Derby winner Silver Ending.
But Unbridled thrived at Churchill Downs. His other races were just stepping-stones. He worked three-quarters of a mile in 1:13, and in the days leading up to the Kentucky Derby, his presence lit up the racetrack. He won by more than three lengths.
In the days leading up to the 1994 Kentucky Derby, Holy Bull, usually a taut bundle of energy, appeared lackadaisical. One morning, as he left the track following a routine but unenthusiastic gallop, he coughed, which might or might not have been significant, but he clearly wasn't the same horse who had won the Florida Derby by nearly six lengths and the Blue Grass by more than three. As the 2-1 favorite, he finished 12th in the Kentucky Derby.
I'll Have Another, Animal Kingdom, Super Saver, Barbaro, Smarty Jones, Silver Charm -- they all thrived here. That isn't to say that they were alone among Derby horses in doing so, but it's the rare winner who doesn't at least suggest he can affirmatively answer the essential questions.
This year, to this eye anyway, which has only glimpsed Goldencents and has yet to see Lines of Battle, at least three Derby horses appear to be thriving: Verrazano, Normandy Invasion and Orb.
To avoid the storms the weather handicappers had predicted, trainers Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown moved their horses' workouts that had been scheduled for Sunday to Saturday morning. About 5:45, when it opened for training, Normandy Invasion was among the first to step onto the pristine racetrack. And he percolated. Although known for a powerful late kick that enabled him to finish second in the Wood Memorial, Normandy Invasion has flashed speed and zip here this week. Exercise rider Javier Herrera didn't have to encourage the colt, who eagerly sped through five-eighths of a mile in 59 seconds on the official clock (slightly faster on another), with a final quarter-mile in 24.09. If Herrera had let the reins drop, Normandy Invasion would have gladly sped, or so it seemed, through another half-mile. He galloped out six furlongs in about 1:12, and Herrera needed another three-sixteenths of a mile to get him pulled up.
"He worked swift," Brown said about the colt's workout. "He was good and comfortable. I was happy with it. He came back sharp and happy He's just feeling good."
Verrazano is one of those rare athletes who does everything so easily that he sometimes doesn't seem to be making much effort, which leaves you wondering just how good he might be. When he works, he might not appear to be doing very much of anything, but then a glance at the watch indicates otherwise. Saturday morning, for example, Verrazano worked five-eighths of a mile with Authenticity, a 6-year-old mare who last month finished second in the Rampart Stakes at Gulfstream Park. They seemed to be going along easily; exercise rider Humberto Zamora sat atop Verrazano as if he were posing for a portrait, and the long-striding colt loped along with his ears pointing skyward as though warning of rain. They ran through a half-mile in about 47 seconds, and then Zamora moved his hands, and the big colt quickly left the mare behind, completing the five furlongs in 59.40 and galloping out, or rather strolling out, six furlongs in about 1:13.
And so how good is he? Everything comes so easily for him that you have to wonder what he's capable of, but you also have to wonder if he'll falter when the going gets tough and things aren't so easy. He's the most talented horse in the field, and a horse must also be tough to win the Derby.
And Orb, who's to work Monday, appears to be thriving, too. When he galloped 1 1/2 miles Sunday, he pulled and played and even bucked. Revolutionary looked very strong, too, Saturday, when he worked a half-mile (47 and 47.20) with Charming Kitten, who struggled to keep up. Overanalyze and Palace Malice both impressed when they worked a half-mile together. Working in blinkers for the first time, Palace Malice started about a length in front, but Overanalyze couldn't get by him. And Palace Malice galloped out more strongly.
Among the fillies aimed at Friday's Kentucky Oaks, Unlimited Budget, Midnight Lucky and Close Hatches have been the most impressive of what is a very impressive group. Starting about three lengths back, Midnight Lucky worked in company Sunday morning with Code West and finished about a length in front after running five-eighths in 59.60 seconds. And Close Hatches sparkled while working a half-mile in 47.40 while under a snug hold.
But the week's young.