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Style makes the fight in Derby

Winning Derby horses usually make their move before the long tedious stretch at Churchill Downs. Getty Images

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The roses are won at the track kitchen.

You've probably heard and will no doubt hear much more, if your receptors are tuned in to all the chatter surrounding the Kentucky Derby, about Churchill Downs' long stretch. It's 1,234.5 feet long, and the utterance of this fact in the context of the Derby suggests that's where the race is won.

Don't believe it. The Kentucky Derby is won in the second turn. That's usually where the winner makes his move. The athletic horse that can swirl around the turn like rainwater in a drainpipe puts himself in a position to win the Derby. The horse, on the other hand, that doesn't possess the athleticism needed for a move in the turn but instead has to wait for that long stretch might as well wait for Godot. That's why Hall Of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who has won four Derbies, would often tell jockeys to make their move when they see the track kitchen, which overlooks the turn.

In the last 10 years, only one horse, Mine That Bird, has made up more ground on the leader in the long Churchill stretch than he already had made up in the turn -- and he made up more than six lengths in the turn. Yes, the Churchill stretch is long, the third longest in the country (behind the Fair Grounds' and Hawthorne's), but in the last 10 years, all but three Kentucky Derby winners already had taken control of the race and assumed the lead by mid-stretch.

Street Sense perhaps best makes the point. After the opening half-mile of the 2007 Kentucky Derby, Street Sense was lolling along in 19th position, next-to-last, 19.5 lengths behind Hard Spun, the early leader. When Street Sense approached the second turn and, coincidentally, the track kitchen, he was 17th. But coming out of the turn, at the top of that long stretch, he was third, just 3.5 lengths back. At the eighth pole, or mid-stretch, he was a length ahead of Hard Spun and on his way to the winner's circle. Street Sense won the Derby with his scintillating move in the turn.

Most winners, of course, won't make such a dramatic move, but they make their move nevertheless in the turn.

Over the last 10 years, the typical Derby winner was 10th (actually, the average is 9.7) by 8.525 lengths after the opening half-mile, ninth by about 7 lengths after three-quarters and then fourth by 2.375 lengths coming out of the second turn.

And so the matter of who's going to win the 139th Derby becomes, in part, a question of style. Who has the winning style? Who, in other words, can run around the second turn as if he's chasing his tail?

Six horses in this Derby have turned in exceptional turn times -- that is, the clocking for the quarter-mile that includes the second turn: Normandy Invasion, Java's War, Verrazano, Palace Malice, Orb and Goldencents. Of those, to this eye, Java's War hasn't taken to the Churchill surface. And so that leaves five. One of them, it says here, will win Saturday.

They're all looking good and training well, Orb especially. Normandy Invasion tried to "run off" during a routine gallop Thursday, which no horseman wants to see. But the sharp colt looked strong and poised when he returned to the track Friday.

Normandy Invasion tried to "run off" during a routine gallop Thursday, which no horseman wants to see. But the sharp colt looked strong and poised when he returned to the track Friday.


And now comes word from the weather handicappers that there's a 50 percent chance of rain Saturday, which only multiplies the uncertainty of the country's most turbulent race. Most of the Derby horses have little experience on muddy or sloppy surfaces.

Trainer Todd Pletcher, who'll saddle five horses in the Derby, said of those only Revolutionary has shown a fondness for an "off" track. But Pletcher indicated that in their training Palace Malice, Overanalyze, Charming Kitten and Verrazano haven't indicated any dislike for a wet surface.

Nor has Normandy Invasion, according to his trainer, Chad Brown. "He doesn't give me a feel, one way or another," Brown said. "There are horses that occasionally will give me a feel if they would handle a wet track or not … but this horse gives me no opinion." (Note: Normandy Invasion is a son of Curlin, who won the Breeders' Cup Classic in the mud.)

"Orb's never run on one," the colt's trainer, Shug McGaughey, pointed out when asked about the probability of a wet track. "He trained on one here one morning, and he trained excellent. I don't think it'll be a problem, but you never know in the afternoon what you're going to get."

In other words, the degree to which these Derby horses will handle a muddy or sloppy racetrack is incalculable. But the speed with which they can run the turn is known. And so here are the Derby picks: Orb, Verrazano, Normandy Invasion, Palace Malice, Goldencents.