Catching the incurable fever

It can strike anytime, although symptoms become most visible in the spring; and it can strike indiscriminately, although owners and fans seem most susceptible. Once it grips a person and has him in a pyrexial hug, it never completely lets go. There's no vaccination, no cure. Most people, instead of fighting it, just surrender, quite happily, to Derby fever, and capitulation is probably the best way to deal with it. On the other hand, it's important, even essential, that a few people remain immune, lest the entire racing world succumb to febrile folly.

For those who have somehow avoided it or never witnessed the antics of somebody in its clutches, perhaps a definition is in order here: Derby fever is a fascination with the Kentucky Derby bordering on obsession. It's what makes some people think of horses and hear "My Old Kentucky Home" whenever they see a rose and what makes some fans wonder about mile-and-a-quarter potential whenever they see a 2-year-old break its maiden. Derby fever compels aficionados and investors to roll out of their beds at 5 o'clock in the morning in the cold to examine with a speculative eye hundreds of young racing prospects going through their first career lessons. Nothing but Derby fever could prompt fans to pay piratical prices for hotel rooms in Louisville, Ky., and for box seats at Churchill Downs. In the throes of Derby fever, the most stolid businessmen scurry for their checkbooks and even lose count of the zeroes if there's a promising prospect to be purchased. And only Derby fever could lead people to the conclusion that after God, country, family and friends, the Kentucky Derby is the most important thing in the world, and they might not be too sure about the friends.

Hornung That would be the greatest thrill of my life.

-- NFL Hall of Famer Paul Hornung on winning the Kentucky Derby

It's highly contagious, this fever. Presidents, princes, sheikhs, entertainers, movie stars, writers, millionaires and billionaires have all caught it. The great John Steinbeck described the Kentucky Derby as "one of the most beautiful and violent and satisfying things" he had ever experienced. After his Jaklin Klugman finished third in the 1980 Kentucky Derby, the popular actor Jack Klugman said, as quoted in Jim Bolus' "Kentucky Derby Stories": "That was the greatest two minutes I ever spent in my life."

Not even the great John Wayne was immune. In 1976, the Duke attended the Kentucky Derby and participated in the festivities as grand marshal of the Pegasus Parade. And despite having what was reported to be a losing day at the windows, he so enjoyed his Derby experience that he insisted on paying his own expenses for the visit.

"That would be the greatest thrill of my life," said Paul Hornung, a Louisville native, about the possibility of winning this year's 139th run for the famed roses. As a member of a partnership, Hornung owns Titletown Five, a lightly raced colt who's aimed at the Triple Crown and, more immediately, at Saturday's Louisiana Derby in New Orleans.

Playing for Notre Dame, Hornung won the 1956 Heisman Trophy, and during his long career with Green Bay, the Packers won four NFL titles and a Super Bowl. In 1961, on his way to football's Hall of Fame, Hornung was named the league's MVP. But if Titletown Five wins the Kentucky Derby, and Hornung has the opportunity to walk into the Churchill Downs winner's circle and thank, he said, the people of his hometown, then May 4 will be the greatest day of his life. That's Derby fever.

Last October at Churchill Downs, Titletown Five won in a romp, by nine lengths, with a performance that suggested he could be among the most talented horses of his generation. But he exited the race with a chipped knee that put him on the sideline. He recently returned to competition with a runner-up finish in a minor stakes at Oaklawn Park, but, still, except for talent he's shy of everything he needs for a roseate run. Just earning the points necessary to get into the Derby would seem for him unlikely, the stuff of dreams, really. But, then again, Derby fever inspires dreams, sleepless and relentless and recurring dreams, the sort that Hornung said he's having these days.

"I've got Derby fever every year, whether I have a horse or not," said Jack Wolf, one of the managing partners of Starlight Racing -- the partnership that owns Shanghai Bobby, the champion juvenile of 2012 who'll be one of the favorites in Saturday's Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park.

Last year, Starlight had Algorithms aimed at the Triple Crown, and after he won the Holy Bull Stakes by five lengths in a superlative performance, he briefly became the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby. But an injury forced the unbeaten colt to miss the Florida Derby and, eventually, into retirement.

"I was sort of numb when it happened," Wolf said, "but looking back at it now, I'm even more impressed with just how good he was and how fortunate we were to have a horse like him."

No telling, Wolf said, how good Algorithms might have been. And if momentous affairs that seem to invite a convergence of fate and fortune and destiny are in the hands of some power or deity beyond understanding, as often seems the case, then, well, perhaps that power or deity will smile on Shanghai Bobby, or at least that's the feverish perspective.

Many years ago, the great Red Smith told a story about an Iowa farmer who suddenly showed up at Churchill Downs with a horse for the Kentucky Derby. The horse had never raced, but the farmer had clocked this lightning bolt through many snow-blanketed pastures and figured there must be a roseate blanket in the horse's future. The farmer had Derby fever.

Churchill officials persuaded him not to enter. They were not so lucky, however, in 1979 with the connections of Great Redeemer. They had Derby fever, a bad case. And so Great Redeemer, who was still a maiden after six outings, ran in the Kentucky Derby, although "ran" here is used in the most liberal sense.

Somewhat shockingly, he was only 78-1. He finished last, of course, about 50 lengths or so behind Spectacular Bid. In fact, Great Redeemer finished so far behind the next-to-last horse, Lot o' Gold, that photographers already had rushed onto the track by the time the caboose arrived at the station.

And so it's important, even essential, that some people remain immune to Derby fever. It can lead not only to embarrassment and humiliation, but can also encourage owners and trainers to enter horses that, for their own health and well-being, would be better employed elsewhere.

Jack Price was immune. Even though he had the Derby favorite in his barn, the trainer and breeder of Carry Back never caught the fever. Back in 1961, just days before Carry Back won the Derby, Price annoyed many people and probably angered more than a few when, somewhat jokingly perhaps, he described the Kentucky Derby as "the seventh race … at Churchill Downs."

But such perspective can be valuable, especially as the Derby approaches and springtime arrives. Trainer Al Stall Jr. provided some perspective this year when he didn't even nominate Departing and Sunbean to the Triple Crown -- not initially, anyway.

"They're both geldings," Stall said, explaining that since neither horse has a stallion career in his future, grades and black type aren't important for them. "And neither horse had run around two turns. We don't wholesale nominate our horses to the Triple Crown. I guess it just comes down to putting the horse first. … The Derby trail is littered with broken-down horses."

The walk over for the Derby, a thrill for many, doesn't mean anything to him, Stall said, or at least not so much that he would put a horse through it that's unprepared. "And Blame changed my perspective," the trainer said, referring to the winner of the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic. "I can't imagine anything more thrilling or exciting than that."

But Departing and Sunbean, who both have won a two-turn stakes since the early Triple Crown nominations were made, have become late nominees, at a cost of $6,000 each. And both are aimed at Saturday's Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds.

"Back in October, I didn't know they'd be here, but they've just kept getting better and better," Stall said. "And now it's up to them."

Departing is unbeaten in three races. Sunbean, a Louisiana-bred, has won three of four. For the most part, they've dominated, but they've never faced the sort of competition they'll find Saturday in the Louisiana Derby, which is expected to attract Revolutionary, Palace Malice and Code West. But if Stall has entered them, it's not out of some feverish impulse.

That's not to suggest feverish impulses are necessarily unwelcome or unhealthy. Derby fever can be much like temptation, and the best way to remove temptation, as Mark Twain pointed out, is, quite simply, to give in to it.