The search resumes for racing's next superhorse
That's what horse racing needs, a LeBron James, a superstar dazzler who can dominate the stage, inspire debate and revive memories of greatness. Horse racing needs a superhorse, a charismatic force that seems indomitable, overwhelming, mythic. Ideally he should emerge on the road to the Triple Crown, since that's the sport's most visible stage and the only one that popular culture acknowledges, pocket some gothic jewelry and then burnish his image while extending his dominion with even more dominating accomplishments.
Of course, for years the sport has been searching, or waiting, for just such a horse. But after so many 3-year-olds have approached superhorse status, come close even, only to fall short, the search has become something of a perennial frustration.
Nevertheless, it has begun again, this search, or wait. It goes beyond the question of who's going to win the Kentucky Derby. There's that, of course; there's always that. But are there any 3-year-olds out there whose flashes of brilliance have hinted that they might, just maybe, with some time and development and abundant good luck, have superhorse potential?
Well, there are two, Verrazano and Flashback. And they both race Saturday, Verrazano in the Tampa Bay Derby and Flashback in the San Felipe at Santa Anita.
How good are they? Impossible to say: But that's why they're the two most intriguing horses in the country. It's what they could be that's important. They could be -- well, they could be what horse racing has been looking for.
Verrazano has won his two races like pulling taffy, by a total of 24 lengths. And yet his trainer, Todd Pletcher, said the unbeaten colt hasn't gotten close to the bottom, or approached the depth, of his talent.
"With most horses at this point, maybe it's in a gallop-out or in their workouts, you get a glimpse of the bottom," Pletcher said. "But with him, with everything he has done, from his wins to his workouts in the mornings, we've felt like there's plenty left. I haven't seen the bottom of him yet."
A big bay colt, Verrazano stands, Pletcher estimated, 16 hands and 3 inches, or about 5-foot-7 at the withers. He glistens with power. And although uncommonly large, Verrazano is also quick and athletic. In both of his races, he was able to use his natural speed to avoid any trouble and stalk a lively pace.
Minor "baby issues" delayed his getting started. Verrazano could have raced, Pletcher said, in late December, but instead focused on a New Year's Day debut, which he took by nearly 8 lengths, drawing clear with easy authority and little encouragement. A month later the big colt romped by more than 16, and afterward, his jockey, John Velazquez, said, "He felt like he wasn't doing anything."
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Derby Day has way of bringing to-do lists to life
1. Bucket list
2. Frat-sorority list
3. Creditor list
Bucket list priorities, or things to do before you're too feeble or too dead, are activities usually attempted by pre-seniors who are at least slightly out of their element: men and women zip-lining over gorges with their eyes slammed shut; couples white-water rafting down the Snake River, wrapped up like the Michelin tire man and surrounded by guides; people sitting huddled together, top deck, last two seats in the end zone, at next year's outdoor Super Bowl in Jersey; people touring Hawaii by chopper; couples with front-row seats off the turn for home at the Indy 500.
At least at the Derby, people living out a dream experience can keep their eyes open.
The last-call trip market is huge, but delicate to advertise.
Nobody wants to put up a sign: Welcome Deathbed Customers.
But there should be special considerations, like lines for the chatty, for people who don't quite know what they're doing. Bucket list or fantasy-come-true list fans will be easy to spot at this year's Kentucky Derby. They'll be the ones who clog up the betting lines, wishing to visit with anybody before betting $4 on the second choice to place. They'll have a mint julep in one hand and a tip sheet in the other and could be wearing a Minnie Pearl hat. They'll have reserved seats where you can't see a thing.
The frat-sorority list, things to do before you graduate, is all about the infield. The Kentucky Derby infield is the garden spot for those who couldn't afford Cabo for spring break.
This Derby, live and in person, is less about serious betting than most gambling destinations. That's because of what makes it such a party, the crowd size. Placing a bet at Churchill can be like trying to play blackjack on the subway.
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Doug O'Neill - March 7
Trainer Doug O'Neill discusses his Derby hopeful, Goldencents. TVG's Tim Turrell analyzes, plus Barry Abrams commentary