Monday, May 2, 2011

The 137th running of the Kentucky Derby — The Run for the Roses — takes place Saturday in Louisville, Ky. Churchill Downs will be be overrun by mint juleps and women in hats that will rival the royal wedding. Here, then, is a 1988 Jim Murray column on one of the crown jewels of the Triple Crown.



THE KENTUCKY DERBY — To the American Public, This Is the Race

    LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The Kentucky Derby isn't just a horse race, any more than Elizabeth Taylor is just a woman, the Taj Mahal a building or Mt. Everest a hill.
    Horsemen rail against it because it's too hard to win. Racetracks resent it because it's too hard to copy. Bookmakers bemoan it because it's too hard to chalk. Horseplayers don't like it because all the horses are of the same class.
    Nobody likes it but the public. They don't care that horses are not supposed to be at their best this early in the year. It doesn't bother them that 3-year-olds aren't supposed to go a mile and a quarter before they've reached their growth.
    They pick horses out of hats in the office pools or they get sentimental attachments to one because he's got the same name as a favorite uncle or he's wearing their favorite colors.
    It's America's race. Everything else is a copy. You win Indianapolis, you're a race driver. You win the Derby, you're a horse rider. Or trainer.
    Everything else is Bridgeport. Everything else is just the seventh at Bay Meadows.
    The horse that wins here probably couldn't warm up a high handicap horse at Monmouth but as far as the man in the street is concerned, the winner here is the heavyweight champion of horse racing. He wins the Kentucky Derby, doesn't he? Whaddaya want him to do, talk?
    Churchill Downs is not your chrome-and-mirror glitter track. It looks like an old rooming house. Racing does not get too far from its checkered past here. You expect to find a lot of tattooed guys with towels on their arms waiting to get into the communal shower. The paddock looks like a Tijuana jail. The clubhouse is clapboard and putty and white paint. It seems suspended in air.
    Jimmy Kilroe, the racing secretary, got one look at it and said it reminded him of Wilson Mizner's observation of one of his brother, Addison's, designs: "It's all attic."
    You can almost smell the larceny here. It's part of its charm. If a guy bumps into you, he's not clumsy. He may be a guy named Slick. If he's got a deck of cards, run.
    This is not your limo and nouvelle cuisine, "Mr. Hitchcock's car, please!" racetrack.
    This is the town that whiskey made. And vice versa. A grifters' town.
    This is a town that slept in its boots and took a bath with its wallet in its hand. A man could make a score on a race before it became so all-fired full of probity and patrol judges and movie cameras and urine samples.
    A syringe might have won a few Kentucky Derbies but not lately. They even took a winner's number down — it was Dancer's Image — for Bute use in 1968, but you can use that particular painkiller in broad daylight now. The racing is as legit as the distilling.
    But it's still a town where you don't buy a watch on a street corner or make change for a guy in a checked vest. There are still a few caveats to observe on Derby Saturday:
    * Don't bet the filly here, even though she's favored. Fillies have won only two of these. The last filly that ran here finished 19th. And she was favored.
    Thirty-four fillies have run here and, except for the two that won, the best they have managed is one second, five thirds and a fourth. Except for the winning Genuine Risk in 1980, no filly has finished in the money in 66 years.
    * Don't bet the favorite unless it's odds-on. Forty-seven post-time favorites have won. But there have been 113 runnings. There have been 28 odds-on choices. And 17 have won.
    That is not to say they are sure things. Honest Pleasure was the first horse to take a million dollars down with him but he couldn't win in 1976 and finished second. And don't forget, the only race Native Dancer ever lost was this one.
    *Don't bet the roan. A roan has never won. That makes it double jeopardy for the filly Winning Colors this year, since she's a roan. Triple, if she goes off as the favorite. And don't rush to bet the grays. Only four of those have won. Stephen Foster had the best advice: "Somebody bet on the bay." Bays have won 53 times.
    * Don't be afraid to bet the gelding. Seven geldings have won. Since relatively few geldings get into this race — there's only one this year — that's a pretty good showing.
    * Don't be in a hurry to bet the rider. Shoemaker, the best jockey whoever lived, didn't win his fourth till he was 54 years old. And he's ridden in 25 of these.
    * It's the toughest race in America for a rider to win. Bill Hartack just fell into his five wins. Eddie Arcaro had to ride 21 to get his five firsts. Some great riders have won only one, Johnny Longden among them. Some great riders have won none — Georgie Woolf and Manny Ycaza, combined, were 0 for 18. Don Brumfield won the first Derby he was in and hasn't won another in 12 more tries.
    * Don't bet the owners. They can't win this thing either. Calumet Farm holds the record, 8 wins over 45 years. That's the nearest thing to a dynasty on this stake.
   The legendary Col. E. R. Bradley won with 4 of his 28 entries. Fred W. Hooper won with the first horse he ever entered, Hoop Jr., and hasn't been able to win since. In 43 years.
    * Don't bet the trainers, either. Wayne Lukas, one of the best in the business, is 0 for 12. Ben Jones had six winners for Calumet but a lot of great conditioners have given up trying to beat this wheel. Willie Molter was one of them. He couldn't win with Round Table.
    * Don't bet the outside horses. Post position 20 won this once. Post position 19 won once. Post position 15 won once. Post position 1 has won it 13 times since 1900. Post positions 5 or less have won it 46 times. Post positions 16, 17 or 18 have never won it.
    The best horse never to have won it? Well, Man o' War didn't enter it. Native Dancer is probably the best entrant never to have won it, although some great horses just missed, Hill Prince, Nashua, Gallant Man, Alydar.
    The worst horse ever to have won it? Well, the odds say it was Donerail, who paid $184.90 in 1913. But Donerail was a pretty good horse that the hardboots let get away. He broke the track record.
    Your hunch tells you that the worst winning horse was Dust Commander in 1970. He won nothing after the Derby and hadn't won much before it.
    The best horse ever to have won it? Well, in our time, the consensus says Secretariat. The vote here, however, goes to Citation and Affirmed. I'd have to see Secretariat get by them.

Reprinted with permission by the Los Angeles Times.

Jim Murray Memorial Foundation | P.O. Box 995 | La Quinta | CA | 92247


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