Stepping in the gate

Much like Christmas displays in October, it has become a matter of course for Kentucky Derby lists to pop up well in advance of the big day.

As soon as the winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile crosses the wire in early November, he is almost always crowned the early Derby favorite. The madness then settles down for a bit, but by January and certainly by February it is time to start picking your Derby horse.

With that in mind, this week ESPN's Barry Abrams is launching "In the Gate," a weekly thoroughbred podcast. The idea is to do an interview with an industry newsmaker, follow that with a Q&A with a turf writer, and then end with commentary.

Barry is a feature producer at ESPN, and he has worked for the company for nearly 20 years. As it so happens, one of his biggest passions is thoroughbred racing.

Because most of the sport's attention is on the Kentucky Derby trail this time of year, in the beginning "In the Gate" will focus mainly on the 3-year-old scene before branching out to other divisions.

The inaugural podcast will feature an interview with Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, who sends out Russian Greek and the filly Lady of Fifty in the upcoming Grade 3 El Camino Real.

As you might have guessed by now, yours truly will be up first for the journalist Q&A segment. All of ESPN.com's columnists will be taking part as the series evolves, so there will be plenty of opinions to be heard throughout the year.

I am excited about the new venture but readily admit I approach Derby season from a slightly different perspective than normal. For you see, although perhaps inappropriate for my line of work, I fall into the "it is usually folly to pick a Derby horse in the dead of winter" category.

Don't get me wrong -- I genuinely admire all of the various Derby Dozens that arrive like clockwork around the time the groundhog searches for his shadow. I know how much research, knowledge and time goes into a project like that.

However, of the last five Derby winners, only one kicked off his 3-year-old campaign before March, and even then just barely. Mine That Bird went to post Feb. 28 in the 2009 Borderland Derby.

You read that right. The Borderland Derby. It helps serve as a reminder that Kentucky Derby winners can and do come from everywhere.

Knowing this, Barry has kindly asked me to offer something different than a Derby Dozen. Throughout the spring, we will be chatting about the obvious horse of the moment, a worthy up-and-comer, someone who is flying below the radar, and a horse that should perhaps be viewed with caution.

Three of the most debated horses right now are Union Rags, Hansen and Algorithms. Hansen upset Union Rags in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Algorithms upset Hansen in the Holy Bull, and now Union Rags is set to make his seasonal debut against Algorithms in the Feb. 26 Fountain of Youth.

Given that the Juvenile is the most important race we currently have to work off of, it makes sense Union Rags, Hansen and their foes are grabbing the most headlines.

That said my brain just can't get past the fact that in the last 10 years, only two Kentucky Derby winners even competed in the Juvenile. In a beautiful case of symmetry, one of them won that contest as well, while the other finished dead last.

No one really expects to be 100% locked down on their Derby horse in February.

Then again, no one really expects to be 100% locked down on their Derby horse in February. It is more the fun of trying to see into the future, guessing which horses will or won't progress, and sometimes taking that lucky stab in the dark that makes the sport so much fun.

I have several friends who will boast about the time they picked the (fill in the year here) Derby winner ridiculously early in the season. The sooner they figured it out, the bigger the brag.

In short, Derby musings give us something to talk about and potentially a story to tell.

That is why "In the Gate" will hopefully be a lot of fun for everyone involved, participants and listeners alike. I may not pick my Derby horse until hours before the sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home, but it is fun to speculate up until then.

Listen in, let us know what you think, and enjoy this year's version of the long, winding and sometimes misleading Derby trail.

Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Write to her at amanda.duckworth@ymail.com.