It's an honor to enter the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby, a greater honor to win the Kentucky Derby. It matters not how much one wins by. It's the winning alone that matters.
Yum! Brands didn't understand this point when it rolled out a bonus program for the entrants in this year's Derby. Should the winner of the Derby end up with a margin of victory that exceeds that of Barbaro last year, 6½ lengths, the winning owner will receive a $1 million bonus.
What does the horse get? The beating of his life, likely.
(Barbaro's jockey, Edgar Prado, did not whip the colt in the stretch.)
In essence, Yum! Brands is asking Corey Nakatani to beat the living hell out of Great Hunter in the final 200 yards should Great Hunter be leading by five when Corey checks over his shoulder.
In olden times, a jockey leading by five in the final 200 yards would look over his shoulder and coast to victory. It is, after all, the first leg of the Triple Crown. There's this thing called the Preakness coming in two weeks and the Belmont three weeks after that.
The typically draining training and prep race schedule for the horses who enter the Kentucky Derby is so severe already that each year most horses who make the Derby bail out when it comes time to race the Preakness two weeks later. The owners and trainers of those horses realize it's just not worth it to punish their horse with another difficult race two weeks after getting the readiness needed to make it a mile and a quarter at Churchill. That is to say, they care for their horses.
Not Yum! Brands. Yum! Brands is encouraging the riders to go for the money, not understanding, that to a man (and the occasional woman rider) the glory of winning a Kentucky Derby is reward enough. Getting into the Kentucky Derby at all is a lifetime achievement enough for most.
I am as certain as "My Old Kentucky Home" will be sung in advance at Saturday's race that not a single trainer or jockey (and I trust each and every owner too) won't consider in the least the possibility that there's an extra million sitting at the finish line should they be able to vanquish Barbaro's great run. His margin of victory was the largest in 60 years when he won last year's race.
Yum! Brands actually tried to play this as a tribute to Barbaro.
It is an insult to Barbaro and to every horse who has ever run in this great American race.
The Queen of England is coming to the event. I'm just guessing, but I don't see her sanctioning a $1 million bonus to the owner of the horse whose rider beats the living hell out of the Ascot Gold Cup.
Maybe I'm wrong and Curlin is that good and he wins in a breeze by 10 lengths. And that will be great. He'll be 4-4 lifetime and have plenty of racing life left for not having been asked to do too much in the Kentucky Derby. But Yum! Brands apparently doesn't get it. The company maintains it is honoring Barbaro. Instead, it is prostituting Barbaro and mocking the spirit of the race.
If Yum! Brands wants to do the right thing, take the million (or is it just $75,000 -- as in the likely insurance premium) and spread it out to the grooms and hotwalkers and anyone else who doesn't share in the riches so often. Or maybe take the million and give it to the fund that supports injured jockeys. Or maybe send some of the money over to the Alex's Lemonade stand. I love that girl. She's gone but her memory is so strong. And so is that of Barbaro. But now somebody's misguided reward system threatens to tarnish not enhance Barbaro's memory.
It's not too late for Yum! Brands. The company can still pull it back. Issue a statement. Explain that the idea was intended to honor Barbaro but upon reflection there are probably better ways to do so.
But even if Yum! Brands fails to pull back the million-dollar bonus program, I think the horses will be OK in this regard.
Some horse just might surpass Barbaro when it comes to margin of victory on Saturday. But it will happen because the horse was that good, the race that easy. If it happens, it will happen in spite of Yum! Brands.
I just have too much faith in the goodness of people to believe any different.
Editor's note: A spokesperson from Yum! Brands told Kenny Mayne that the sole purpose and intent of this promotion was to honor the spirit and legacy of Barbaro.