LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Few renewals of the Kentucky Derby have embraced as many compelling and unusual subplots as the 134th -- the phenomenon, the footing and the filly.
First, the phenomenon: This is a Derby with a prerace favorite whose career spans three races departing from the outside post in a field of 20. Big Brown, if he is to live up to trainer Rick Dutrow's clearly stated expectations, must prove himself capable of doing one thing (winning the Derby with only three prior starts) not seen since 1915 (Regret) and another (winning from the outside post in a field of 20 or more) that has rebuffed 15 attempts since 1929, when Clyde Van Dusen, in front at every call, got the job done.
According to Dutrow, the outside position in the second of two starting gates from which 20 3-year-olds will depart in the annual dash to destiny is not a problem. One of Big Brown's owners, Michael Iavarone, managing partner in IEAH Stables, calls this "making the best of a bad situation." Dutrow and jockey Kent Desormeaux agree that the remote starting point is actually advantageous. In their shared view, Big Brown is simply superior to the competition and will benefit from beginning the race out of harm's way. Perhaps he is the next superstar, but even after buying into Dutrow's claim that Big Brown's hoof problems are forever solved, most horseplayers will swallow hard before taking a short price in the face of so much adversity.
Second, the footing: This is the first Derby of the synthetic track era. Nine Derby starters ran their most recent races on synthetic tracks. Two, including Colonel John, who will be heavily supported in the betting pools, have not raced on dirt. The Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, where the footing is synthetic, clouded the form of Pyro, who won the Louisiana Derby and was considered for a time the Derby favorite but finished 10th of 12 at Keeneland. Fountain of Youth Stakes winner Cool Coal Man finished ninth at Keeneland and Tampa Bay Derby winner Big Truck placed 11th.
Many handicappers consider a poor effort in a horse's final prep for the Derby a flaw beyond forgiveness. But many horses have returned to good form when revisiting dirt. Steve Asmussen, who trains Pyro, Nick Zito, who trains Cool Coal Man, and Barclay Tagg, who trains Big Truck, have dismissed the Blue Grass as an aberration rooted in the surface. Most handicappers have less-defined opinions on the matter.
The same race put the Todd Pletcher-trained Monba and Cowboy Cal, who finished first and second, into the Derby in a year when the four-time Eclipse Award winning trainer appeared to be without a prospective Derby horse. "All I know is that my horses ran well in the Blue Grass, and that's why they're here," Pletcher said.
Monba has won a race on dirt, at Churchill, in his second career start; Cowboy Cal has not. Their ability to translate recent synthetic form to dirt is a matter of conjecture. Others, including Colonel John and Adriano, have trained strongly since being sent here early and allowed time to acclimate to the surface.
Trainers disagree about the issue of synthetic racetracks. Some believe the manmade surface reduces catastrophic injuries, though early studies suggest the difference is minimal.
"I'm a dirt-and-grass guy," trainer Nick Zito said. "Many years ago, God made dirt and grass. That's what you race on. There's nothing as exciting as a race on dirt. I didn't see too many exciting races [at Keeneland]."
"I'm not going to knock it," said Barclay Tagg, "I'm not going to knock Keeneland. It's a lovely place. But I'm not a fan."
"It's good for bone," Dutrow said. "It cuts down on bone injuries. But it's not good for tendons and ligaments. I stay away from it."
Then, there is the filly, Eight Belles -- who would have been the favorite to win the Kentucky Oaks on Friday but is probably overmatched in an attempt to become the fourth filly to win the Derby, an assignment last carried out successfully by Winning Colors in 1988.
Trainer Larry Jones has appeared uneasy with owner Rick Porter's decision to take this course. Porter, who owned last year's Derby runner-up, Hard Spun, is apparently beset by Derby fever. Jones skirts the issue with the skill of a diplomat and has conferred with the last two trainers to succeed with fillies in the Derby, D. Wayne Lukas and LeRoy Jolley.
The three fillies who have won the Derby all were proven in competition with males before the first Saturday of May. Eight Belles has not raced against males and has not won a Grade 1 race against members of her own sex. Considering the enormity of what is asked of her, she goes into the Derby unarmed.
Only three fillies have attempted the Derby since Winning Colors, all very talented animals -- Serena's Song, a champion (16th in 1995), Excellent Meeting and Three Ring (fifth and 19th respectively in 1999). Fourteen fillies ran in the Derby before Regret won in 1915; 15 more between Regret and Genuine Risk, who won the 1981 Derby. Still, Jones and others of prominence who will be rooting for Eight Belles are not without hope.
Apparently, Sen. Hillary Clinton, campaigning across the Ohio River in advance of the Indiana primary on Tuesday, has taken note of the filly in the Derby. Former first-daughter Chelsea Clinton is expected to attend the Derby.
"I understand that Hillary is backing Eight Belles," Jones said, "I heard that on TV."
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul maintains paulmoranattheraces.blogspot.com and can be contacted at email@example.com.