A whimsical Derby

Colorful silks may be reason enough to take Itsmyluckyday to win the Kentucky Derby. AP Photo

To some, the 139th Kentucky Derby means one thing, maybe two: Box the 9 and the 13 in the exactas, and box the 1, the 3 and the 9 in the trifectas. Others might make a single win bet on the 13, because that's the sum of the three numbers represented in 139, added together.

For those to whom a Derby horse's name is more relevant than a number, please keep reading for advice.

One storyline for the first Saturday in May is that this race usually leaves traditional handicappers talking to themselves.

Here's something that even the best handicappers should think: I'm not sure I can do this.

There's nothing in sport that is more difficult to predict than the Kentucky Derby.

Here's why: Twenty horses run in the race. That's at least a half-dozen too many. The start of the Kentucky Derby looks like the last day of school. Beyond a dozen horses, 14 at the outside, the opportunity for experiencing trouble during the race seems to increase exponentially with each entry beyond a baker's dozen. The run to the first turn resembles the 405 freeway in Los Angeles at any time except for the unrushed hour of 3-4 a.m.

Twenty horses is about what you expect to see after the fox. Drawing the rail is like spending the night in the Bates Motel. When the door opens, there's trouble everywhere.

More problematic still is the fact that all Derby horses are healthy and eager and young and inexperienced. The new points system that qualifies entries for the Kentucky Derby has helped to eliminate five-horse prep races that used to bore fans on the coasts. This year's Derby horses are probably more prepared to deal with the bumper-car antics that could at any time cause a solid favorite to disappear in a swarm of legs and rumps.

But if it can seem almost impossible to pick the winner of a football or a basketball game involving two contestants, try picking one of 20.

It's about like making a futures wager on the Super Bowl winner.

Then, for the real money, you have to pick who will finish second. And third. And forth.

For the Kentucky Derby, traditional handicapping technique is to be assisted by the methods employed by those trying to pick winners off the program alone, by numerologists, by those tipsy and by hunch players alike; by whimsy.

Skillful handicapping will sometimes lead you to the Derby winner. Then you hit the "All" button for the exacta, and pray.

Who frequently wins the gigantic Derby payoffs?

Here's who.

People whose lucky numbers -- address numbers, age numbers, birth dates, old uniform numbers -- get there. Once you have handicapped the race to the best of your ability, look at it this way. It's like a lottery with only 20 numbers, and numbers that can't repeat at that.

How many people have won the name game at the Derby? Hundreds of thousands surely: If you don't put two bucks on a horse with your pet's name, it wins. It's why you should name a dog or a cat something that would also fit a horse. Playing equal parts fantasy and sound investigatory technique with past performances makes as much sense as anything the first Saturday in May.

One of the most satisfying wins I have ever had at a track was at an impossible full-field race when a horse named almost the same as an ex-wife got there for some sweet justice.

Write to Jay at jaycronley@yahoo.com.