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The most inscrutable 2 minutes in sports

In the days when I was a degenerate gambler (and proud of it), I would often wander over to the local dog track. After a while I figured out there was no sense bothering to handicap. The form meant nothing. Good dogs ran bad. Bad dogs ran good. The puppies would all collide into one another and the handful of greyhounds that didn't get run over or banged into would usually finish ahead of the rest of the pack. It was sheer chaos.

It wasn't that long ago that this appeared to be one of the most talented and consistent group of 3-year-olds ever assembled. Uncle Mo looked like the second coming of Seattle Slew.


I didn't know it at the time, but those nights spent at places called Wonderland, Raynham and Seabrook -- may they all rest in peace -- prepared me for this year's Kentucky Derby.

This isn't a horse race. It is mass confusion. Who will win? Your guess is as good as mine. This year that's all any of us can do -- guess.

It wasn't that long ago that this appeared to be one of the most talented and consistent group of 3-year-olds ever assembled. Uncle Mo looked like the second coming of Seattle Slew. To Honor and Serve, brilliant late in his 2-year-old year, seemed to have unlimited potential. The Factor was scary fast. Dialed In had a stretch kick that reminded you of Forego.

With less than three weeks to go to the Derby, Uncle Mo is a mystery, To Honor and Serve ran himself off the Derby trail and The Factor was no factor in the Arkansas Derby. Premier Pegasus, who rose to No. 1 in California, was sent to the sidelines with an injury before the Santa Anita Derby. That's the same Santa Anita Derby that was won by a horse coming off a victory in a maiden race. Soldat, who looked so good winning the Fountain of Youth, looked ordinary in the Florida Derby.

The last five Derby preps have been won by horses that have paid $52.40, $40.20, $19.40, $12.60 and $29.80, and not one of those horses was on anyone's Top Ten list before their surprising wins. Since The Factor won the March 19 Rebel, there have been nine graded preps for the Derby, none of them won by the favorite.

Of late, only Dialed In, the Florida Derby winner, has been able to come through when expected. But even he was beaten as the 1-5 favorite in a March 6 allowance.

Will Uncle Mo rebound? Is Archarcharch for real? Who will get into trouble in the 20-horse rodeo? Who will stay out of trouble? What about the European horse, Master of Hounds? Does he have a chance? Why did The Factor run such a stinker in the Arkansas Derby? Is Nehro a serious Derby contender or the jacket of choice of Austin Powers?

You have questions. I don't have answers.

I suppose there are two ways of looking at this:

The glass-is-half-full guy might be saying this is the most wonderful, perplexing handicapping riddle ever. This person is crazy.


The glass-is-half-full guy might be saying this is the most wonderful, perplexing handicapping riddle ever. Figure this brainteaser out, out-handicap your pari-mutuel rivals and you might just be holding a winning superfecta ticket worth $498,234.80. This is the guy who has a firm opinion on someone. He has convinced himself that Decisive Moment is going to run the race of his life. This person is crazy.

The glass-is-half-empty guy is probably saying his gambling dollars might be better spent playing keno. He understands that there is no way to figure this out and that all he can do is spend hours handicapping, get a massive headache and, in the end, lose his money. I fall into that camp.

Which takes me back to my dog playing days. I tried everything. I read once that the one and the eight had the advantage because they were less likely to get into traffic problems. I tried to play around with times, figuring out which dogs were the fastest. I would follow dogs that got into a ton of trouble yet still managed to turn in big efforts. Nothing worked. I was hopeless.

I figured out that I could never figure it out, which is when I decided to just have some fun, play in small amounts and have a beer or two (something I would never do while gambling at a thoroughbred track).

For this Derby, I am wondering if I might not be better off with a dartboard or boxing the 1-4-6-8-9-14 in the trifecta and superfecta. (The numbers that have been retired by the Boston Red Sox).

There are still two-and-a-half weeks to figure this mess out and, I swear, I will try. You have to bet on the Kentucky Derby and you have to try to pick the winner. To do anything else is un-American. But confident? How could anyone possibly be?

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at wnfinley@aol.com.