LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Tape a program to the wall. Wear a blindfold. Throw a dart to pick your winner.
That's as good a selection method as any for the 2011 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, where a field of 20 horses lines up Saturday in what may very well be recent history's murkiest edition of the 1¼-mile event. A motley assortment of runners falls into two categories for the 137th Derby that goes off at 6:24 p.m. ET -- questionable and more questionable -- and standouts at various levels seem one-dimensional at best.
Contenders with ability to get the distance have never proved it on a dirt surface. Horses that relish the dirt may not have the stamina to run more than a mile. The few that put the two together have other questions to answer -- recent races gone awry or low speed figures compromising their past performances -- and several late defections in the past few days resulted in even less clarity. Last night at the post position draw, eight entrants were given morning-line odds of 30-1 by handicapper Mike Battaglia while three were placed at odds of 20-1.
"You would want to think that the most important race in North America is the race with the richest history that has a lot of tradition to it," said owner Ahmed Zayat, who sends out maiden winner Nehro (runner-up in the Louisiana Derby and Arkansas Derby) in pursuit of victory from Post 19. "Nevertheless, it's become a very, very different race in the last 10 years. I'm not sure if that's a reflection of the quality of horses we have now, or of the way they're made or the way they're trained, but it looks like every textbook rule for getting a horse to the Derby is out. You want to think of the unbelievable tradition and history of this race, how it's the hardest one to win, and you want all the nice glory and historical significance to continue to go along with it. But sometimes I think that's no longer the case."
On Thursday, in fact, it was still unknown whether the horse who was supposed to be the race's superstar -- 2-year-old champion and 9-2 second choice Uncle Mo -- would compete. After entering and drawing Post 18, his connections were planning an 11th-hour decision amid swirling rumors that the colt had not yet recovered from the gastrointestinal tract infection that was blamed for his third-place finish last time out in the April 9 Wood Memorial. An announcement as to whether he would run is expected Friday from trainer Todd Pletcher and owner Mike Repole, as memories harkened back to the raceday scratch of 2009 Kentucky Derby favorite I Want Revenge.
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"I'd like to have Lookin at Lucky in this field," Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said Monday morning. Last year, the son of Smart Strike started as the 6-5 favorite in the Derby but suffered a horrendous trip from Post 1. He came back to win the Preakness and went on to be named the season's best 3-year-old -- the only horse since Spectacular Bid in 1978 and 1979 to be named champion of his division at both 2 and 3 -- after victories in the Haskell Invitational and Indiana Derby.
This year, Baffert sends out Arnold Zetcher's surprise Santa Anita Derby winner Midnight Interlude from Post 15 as his lone contender after hopefuls The Factor and Jaycito defected with minor injuries. Lookin at Lucky was the champion 2-year-old in 2009; Midnight Interlude trained up to his debut at the low-level bullring of Fairplex Park and didn't even start until his 3-year-old year -- but in the 2011 Derby field, he was still assigned morning-line odds of 10-1 as the co-fourth choice in the field.
A few days before the Derby, Baffert sat inside Barn 33 and tried to explain how you could try every way to make it to the race with certain runners (as he did victoriously in 1997 with Silver Charm, 1998 with Real Quiet and 2002 with War Emblem), only to wind up starting a colt you had absolutely no intention of entering in the months before.
"He wasn't even on the Derby radar," Baffert said. "But what are you going to do? Some horses just bring you here. He's no Secretariat, but we've been waiting on a horse like Secretariat for years."
Ah, Secretariat, the iron running machine who barreled into the 1973 Kentucky Derby off a remarkable string of 2-year-old stakes victories and went on to triumph in the Triple Crown and beyond. The state of the current Derby field leaves woeful pundits markedly certain that this year, yet again, no Triple Crown winner will come forth from the 3-year-old crop. Horses that actually seem to make sense as potential Derby winners make up less than half of the field, and once you start to break them down, to expose perceived weaknesses, you can talk most out of the winner's circle faster than the time it takes the race to be run. This year, perhaps more than ever, handicappers who use the old safety-net statement "This race is wide open!" may say it and mean it with justification.
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The runner most likely to succeed -- and leaving Post 8 as the morning-line favorite at odds of 4-1 -- is Robert LaPenta's Florida Derby winner Dialed In from the barn of Nick Zito. The time of that Florida Derby was unimpressively slow, the margin over Shackleford just a head. The connections, however, will remind you time and time again that the track was playing to a speed bias all day, and coming from 10 lengths off the pace to beat a front-runner is a relatively impressive feat. The son of Mineshaft certainly has a running style that suits the Derby, and Zito, having won two editions of the Derby before (with Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go for Gin in 1994), knows what it takes to get it done.
"I'm just confident in a horse like this, if everything goes good," the Hall of Famer said. "He just always tries so hard and you know he's going to put in his run. I'm always confident when I have a horse like this -- not overconfident, but confident."
Dialed In is lightly raced, with just four starts under his belt. Three of those outings resulted in victory, and the lone loss was a runner-up finish to older horses in an allowance optional claiming race that jockey Julien Leparoux has clearly stated was "just a prep" to the Florida Derby.
"It was an opportunity I could use to really teach him something, just an allowance race," Leparoux said. "That's why I went there and waited and waited and went between horses and tried to teach him. I told Nick before and after the race, 'If you get to the Derby and run against 19 other horses and your horse hasn't been between horses or anything, you're in trouble because he doesn't know.'"
Also coming out of the Florida Derby is Fountain of Youth winner Soldat, who missed the board completely by 10¼ lengths after a tough rail trip and a faltering bid. Since his fifth-place finish there for majority owner Harvey Clarke and his partners, the son of War Front has been training remarkably well. Although many may dismiss him because three previous starts, including his maiden win, came on the turf, conditioner Kiaran McLaughlin said he'll leave Post 17 a more likely winner than pundits realize.
"He's kind of fallen off the radar since the Florida Derby, but that's OK with me, I'd rather not be front and center," the easygoing horseman remarked. "If people watched him train, they'd be buzzing about him, because he's training very well going into this race. We believe in our horse and he's doing great."
Another contender with a turf background who has trained impressively over the slop at Churchill Downs is the Tom Albertrani-trained Brilliant Speed, who upset the April 16 Blue Grass Stakes on Keeneland's Polytrack after a succession of five starts across the lawn. The Dynaformer colt has never won on dirt before -- his first two starts at Belmont and Saratoga as a 2-year-old resulted in fourth- and seventh-place finishes. He leaves Post 2 in his pursuit of Derby glory for Charlotte C. Weber's Live Oak Plantation.
"My horse has some dirt pedigree, some turf pedigree; it's about 50-50," Albertrani said. "I'm dismissing his first-year races on the dirt because of immaturity, and it wasn't his style to go five furlongs, as we found out later. We still don't know; he very well might be just a turf horse, but at this point since we made the step forward of bringing him to the Blue Grass and we won, the next step would naturally be that we've got to try him in the Derby and then we'll find out. Of course everyone wants to be here and that's the whole dream, I think, of having racehorses. This is the place to be on the first Saturday in May."
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Three contenders comprise the most compelling storylines for the 2011 Kentucky Derby, thanks to their human connections. Archarcharch, the Arkansas Derby winner, is trained by soft-spoken old-timer Jinks Fires, who, at 70 years old, had never won a Grade 1 race until that recent Arkansas score. Robert Yagos' Arch colt drew Post 1 on Wednesday, and veteran jockey Jon Court will have his hands full navigating the first turn in his first Derby start.
"I've always wanted to be No. 1, but not in the Derby starting gate," joked Fires, who is also Court's father-in-law. "It is still the shortest way around the track and at least I'm not out next to the track kitchen."
Kathy Ritvo, 41-year-old trainer of Mucho Macho Man, is a transplant recipient who was born on Feb. 13 and who was near death from degenerative heart disease 2½ years ago when she got her new heart on Nov. 13, 2008. Fittingly, on Wednesday, her first Kentucky Derby starter drew Post 13 for Reeves Thoroughbred Racing and Dream Team Racing Stable.
"One day at a time, that's it," said Ritvo, a mother of two. "I think everything moves smoother when you don't worry about things. I'm very serious about my job and what has to happen with the horse, but other than that, I don't worry about it. It's all good."
Ritvo, who captured the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds earlier in the season before Mucho Macho Man ran third in the Louisiana Derby earlier in the season, lives to inspire others.
"If I can give any hope, anytime I can say something, if they're sick and waiting for a transplant, I just want to tell them to hold on, because this is a good life," she said.
The horse that beat Mucho Macho Man in the $1 million Louisiana Derby, George and Lori Hall's Pants on Fire, would be getting more attention in other years, perhaps -- but his front-running nature and the fact that his most recent victory is his only one off a maiden score have many dismissing his chances. Jockey Anna "Rosie" Napravanik, who at 23 will be just the sixth woman to ever ride a Derby contender, has gotten more press than her horse.
"The race is so wide open, I think it's great," said trainer Kelly Breen. "It gives everybody a shot. We're keeping our fingers crossed and anybody could make a choice out of the top 15, but even a horse that got beat 15 lengths on the dirt in his last few starts could jump up and win it."
A fourth potential storyline cropped up Wednesday, when jockey Robby Albarado was thrown from his mount and kicked in the face in a post parade incident earlier in the day. The connections of Team Valor's Animal Kingdom were justifiably concerned, not only for his well-being, but because he was scheduled to ride their horse in the Derby. According to the jockey's agent, he will ride -- with a broken nose -- on Saturday.
Calvin Borel's mount, Twice the Appeal (Post 3); Uncle Mo's stablemate Stay Thirsty (Post 4); Spiral Stakes second Decisive Moment (Post 5); Santa Anita Derby runner-up Comma to the Top (Post 6); Ken Ramsey's Derby Kitten (Post 9); Blue Grass runner-up Twinspired (Post 10); European invader Master of Hounds, who got his first trip over the track on Thursday morning after clearing quarantine (Post 11); Kentucky Jockey Club winner Santiva, ninth in the Blue Grass but never worse than third in any other starts (Post 12); speedy Florida Derby runner-up Shackleford (Post 14); Nehro, who was second in the Louisiana Derby and the Arkansas Derby (Post 19); and 50-1 shot Watch Me Go (Post 20) make up the rest of the field, a varied and untested group if there ever was one.
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"Kentucky: May: Saturday" is the title of a Sports Illustrated piece written by Wiliam Faulkner about the Kentucky Derby in 1955. "Kentucky: Rain: Saturday" could have been the appropriate adage for the past three years, and a severe deluge of record proportions pelted the backside almost every morning in the weeks leading up to this season's Derby. Dry mornings were finally to be found Wednesday and Thursday, bringing a collective sigh of relief from horsemen and racing fans alike. Now, two days remain until the Derby, and the connections of all contenders are simply waiting, wishing for a date with destiny.
"This is one of the wildest races that's run in North America," Breen said. "If you look at some of the past replays, there's usually at least four horses in each race that get the absolutely worst trip. It's going to happen to somebody, I just hope it's not me."
"Not only does everything have to go perfect on that day -- you're looking for your horse to perform at the peak that he needs to reach -- but also there are so many variables," Zayat remarked. "Once you open the gate there's 20 horses with traffic, with trips, it's probably the hardest race in the world to win because of so many variants. The fastest horse isn't necessarily the one that always wins. I guess that's what still makes it so special and sought-after, because winning this race is really a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the Thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.