Category Archives: Churchill Downs

My Favorite Breeders’ Cup Race

Of all the great champions and incredible upsets the Breeders’ Cup has brought us over the past 27 years, my favorite race was just a few years ago, in 2006.

It isn’t a coincidence that it was my first time at the event, held at Churchill Downs on a bright, crisp Saturday that would turn downright fridgid by the time the Classic rolled around. But my favorite race was the first Breeders’ Cup race of the day.

I was perched atop a bench overlooking the paddock, a spot I had captured as soon as the gates opened at 8am. There were scads of people already crowding the inside of the paddock and encroaching upon my bench even that early in the day, but as long as I could still see over them, it didn’t matter to me. The field for the Juvenile filed into the saddling area to gentle applause from a group in front of me. Todd Pletcher’s Scat Daddy was one of the favorites, as was Circular Quay. There were lots of people around those 2 colts, and the TV crews congregated near them, their white-bridled faces splashed across the big screen that overlooked the paddock.

As I looked down the row of stalls, I noticed the first one was filled with only a dark brown horse, a groom and single other man wearing a long, tan trench coat. I thought the colt might be a schooler, but I did a double-take when I realized it was, in fact, the #1 horse and the trench-coated man was Carl Nafzger. It was Street Sense, the colt who had run 3rd to my pick, Great Hunter, at Keeneland.

Being a fan of Unbridled and Nafzger, I was a little surprised that no one was around the Derby-winning trainer that day. Surely his charge had a chance – he didn’t show up at these big events unless he had a real contender.

The jockeys came out and Calvin Borel walked over to Street Sense and Nafzger, and still no one else approached them. Their stall was an oasis among the roiling sea of people.

Borel and Street Sense would lead the parade of colts out to the track. Less than 10 minutes later, the pair lead the field under the wire by 6 lengths. It was the beginning of the Borel legend, the last-to-first, rail-skimming ride at Churchill Downs. Street Sense became a Derby horse that day, and the subject of a terrible jinx: no BC Juvenile winner had won the Kentucky Derby.

We all know what happened 6 months later – Street Sense, and eventually Hard Spun, Curlin and Rags to Riches, would provide us with the greatest Triple Crown season since Sunday Silence and Easy Goer.

And it all started that chilly day at Churchill, with the dark brown colt and his trench-coated trainer, standing all alone.

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Mine That Bird : The Susan Boyle of Horse Racing

Could it all be just a dream?  Calvin Borel celebrates atop 135th Derby winner Mine That Bird, a 50-1 shot.  Photo by AP.

Could it all be just a dream? Calvin Borel celebrates atop 135th Derby winner Mine That Bird, a 50-1 shot. Photo by AP.

He stepped onto the stage, a plain, brown gelding, small in stature, and all but invisible among the flashy stars of the Triple Crown trail.  Handicappers, racing fans, industry insiders, racing commentators, all of them rolled their eyes when reading his name in the post parade: Mine That Bird. 

Steven Levitt, economist and racing fan, wrote in his Freakonomics blog, “If I had to pick a last-place finisher…it would be Mine That Bird.”  In the 3-strikes formula employed by Jon White, Mine That Bird had 5.  Message board commenters joked about him crossing the wire next week.  His speed figures weren’t good enough, he wasn’t fast enough, he’d only won on synthetic surfaces, these same colts had beaten him at the Breeders’ Cup, where he’d come in last — there really wasn’t a good reason for him to be there.

The brown horse knew nothing of this criticism.  He went to post #8 with jockey Calvin Borel in the irons, a veteran who’d ridden a Derby winner in 2007.  He was in good hands.  All that was left was for him to perform. 

When the gates opened, he started out so far back, it was as if he’d been left at the gate.   The track was sloppy, and he was hit in the face with the slick mud off the other horses’ hooves.  As the field flew through the backstretch, Mine That Bird began to move up, passing horses swiftly along the rail.  Turning for home, the pacesetters traded the lead in a thrilling duel.  The race caller’s attention was focused on the drama at the front of the pack, but what he didn’t see was the small, brown gelding closing furiously on the rail just behind them.  In a dramatic burst, the muddy gelding slipped through a slot the size of a needle’s eye on that golden rail.  He was in the lead!  He was drawing away by 3!  4!  6 on the wire! 

The people at Churchill Downs — the ladies in the soggy hats and the Infielders as muddy as the horses– stared in shock.  Mine That Bird had done the impossible, at 50-1 odds! 

I love the Kentucky Derby.  No other sports event can compare with its propensity for surprise winners.  All of the experts, this one included, totally ignored him.  But he took flight on the muddy Churchill Down strip and prevailed by 6 3/4 lengths, surpassing even Barbaro in his dominance.  The only thing I can think of that even comes close to the surprise and delight in this horse’s performance is Susan Boyle.

He took the stage a small, plain, brown gelding.  He entered the Winners’ Circle covered in mud and roses, humming “I Dream A Dream.”

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MAGIC 8 BALL DERBY PICKS!

Last year, I smuggled the Magic 8 Ball into the Infield with me and made a few wagers based on its liquid blue wisdom.  The best it could do was assure me Intangaroo was “Very Likely” to win the Humana Distaff.  I had fun with it, though, so here we go again!

Oh Magic 8 Ball, will the track dry out in time for the Derby?  “Answer Unclear, Ask Again Later”  Fine then…

Magic 8 Ball, wise and infalliable, will the Derby winner go off at odds higher than 10-1?   “Don’t Bet On It”

Ok, will the morning line favorite wear the roses?  “Consult Again Later”  Right, right — the ML favorite has scratched.  How about the Post Time Favorite?  Will that horse win?  “The Stars Say NO”

Will the winner break from the auxiliary gate?  “Focus And Ask Again”  OK, (placing my fingers on my temples) oh honorable Magic 8 Ball, will the winner break from a far outside post position?  “YES”

Will the Derby winning jockey be wearing green silks?  “Chances Aren’t Good”

Will the Derby winning jockey be a first time winner?  “Looks Like YES”

Does it matter if the horse has ever run on a traditional dirt surface?  “Cannot Fortell Now”  Hmmm…

How about the Godolphin horses?  DO they have a shot this year?  “So It Shall Be”  WOW!!  DOes this mean Sheik Mohammed will finally get his Derby winner?  “Looks Like Yes”  OMG!  Will it be Desert Party?  “Cannot Foretell Now”  Ok, how about Regal Ransom?  “Chances Aren’t Good”  So it’s gonna be Desert Party, then?  “So It Shall Be”  That does it, I’m placing my bets now!

Ok, you told me to ask about the track again, will it be a fast track by Derby time?  “VERY LIKELY

SWEET!  I don’t know about you, but I’m going to place a couple bucks on Desert Party in the Derby.  People have picked winners off stranger methods!

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MY MEN of the DERBY

I’m a sucker for Tauruses. 

Guys born under the sign of the Bull just do it for me: they’re strong and sturdy and steady, even-tempered lovers of life.  Cancer girls like me are astrologically compatible with them, as they enjoy the comforts of home that we can provide.  They’re creative and loyal and funny, and if you’re a Taurus reading this now, you can find me on MySpace AND Facebook!

They also have Derby Birthdays!  Not all of them were actually born on Derby day of their birth year, but they share a date with many winners in history.  Here are a few of my favorite Men of the Derby!

H.B. — May 1 — I knew this guy in high school.  Quiet, geeky, liked to listen to Metallica.  He was born on Derby Day in 1982, when the grey Gato Del Sol swooped around the field in the slop to win for Arthur Hancock’s Stone Farm.   Don’t know what he’s up to these days, as I haven’t Facebooked him. Yet.  May 1 was also the date of the Derby wins of two Triple Crown winners, Count Fleet in ’43 and Citation in ’48.  I realized H.B. had a Derby birthday in 1999, when we were both in 11th grade.  I had gotten a serious case of Derby Fever and could not stop talking about the Baffert trio of Prime Timber, Excellent Meeting, and “Rhodman”, AKA General Challenge.  He got tired of me going on and on about the horses one day, saying, “When will this be OVER?!” 
I said to him, “The first Saturday in May!” 
“That’s my birthday.” 
“Sweet!  We can watch the race at your party!”
“Um, You can watch the race at Your party.”

Charismatic won the Derby that year.  I didn’t talk to H.B. much after that.

C.S.– May 7 — I met C.S. in college sophomore year and spent the rest of my time at UM chasing him around.  He was really tall, had sparkling blue eyes like Hawaiian beachfront, and was a trivia nut.  I learned early on that he had a Derby birthday and spent scads of time filling him in on the particulars:  Behave Yourself and Burgoo King, Col. Bradley’s pair from the 30s; Ponder, winner in ’49 sired by Derby winner Pensive and sire of ’56 winner Needles; Swaps, the California wonder.  He actually remembered watching the 1994 Derby on TV because rain kept his party inside — I was always excited to remind him that I had “met” that year’s winner, Go For Gin, at a recent Kentucky trip.  Seattle Slew is the only TC winner I have seen in person, and his Derby was on May 7, 1977, another thing I probably talked about too much. 
C.S. graduated 2 years before me, but I kept up correspondence with him for a little while.  In 2005, I went to the Infield for the very first time.  It was a dream come true, all 12 hot, sweaty, julipy, messy hours of it.  Giacomo won at 50-1.  That year’s Derby was on May7.  I hope that some of that Derby ephemera I incessantly quoted to C.S. stuck somewhere in his memory, and I sometimes think of him winning a Trivia Bowl by correctly answering “Who won the 1988 Kentucky Derby?*”

F.L. — May 11 — I hated F.L. when I first met him.  He was too overbearing, had a penchant for telling ridiculous lies, and could be entirely too goofy at times.  But as I got to know him, I realized just how misunderstood he was.  I found out he had a May 11 birthday and thought he may have a Preakness winner or two.  But delving into the stats, I discovered that F.L. shared a Derby with a few early winners, like 1887 victor Montrose and 1892 winner Azra.  But he also shares a Derby with Exterminator, the 1918 longshot winner who became a national hero.  Exterminator got the nickname “Old Bones” because of his coarse, angular frame, and raced only 4 times at 2 before becoming a workout mate to W. Kilmer’s champion 2yo Sun Briar.  Unfortunately, Sun Briar developed problems that kept himout of the Derby, and Kilmer reluctantly entered Exterminator.  The big brown gelding had not raced at all prior to the Derby, but he was well-conditioned after running alongside the champ for so long.  He ran away from the field in the stretch and won by a length, redeeming his supporters and horse-laughing in the face of his detractors.  F.L. has a lot in common with Old Bones, except I’d probably call him Honeybun (his girth would probably compare to the horse’s).

I’ve been talking F.L.’s ear off about Derby 135 for months.  He’s probably glad the race is 4 days away — he needs his ear back.

 

ETA: *Winning Colors, May 7, 1988!

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PRELUDE to the DERBY

Last night, I stayed up late watching Derby stretch run montages on youtube.  I got teary-eyed over a few of them, Ferdinand and Barbaro most notably.  I am always amazed that Easy Goer could not get to Sunday Silence in the ’89 Derby, as the big black colt zig-zagged all down the stretch.  Strike The Gold, today’s oldest living Derby winner, was so far out in the middle of the track that he is just barely in the frame of the ’91 Derby stretch footage.  Thunder Gulch’s white blinkers stuck out like a high beam in the 1995 Derby, the very first time I picked the winner.  Cavonnier still looks like the winner in ’96, even though Grundstone wore the roses…Menifee almost makes it up to pass Charismatic in ’99… “not today” Point Given eats the dust from Monarchos, who wins “as fast as Secretariat”… ’03 winner Funny Cide shocks the Frankel duo of Empire Maker and Peace Rules…Smarty Jones wallows in the slop and becomes America’s Horse in ’04… what a stretch run in ’07, with Hard Spun ceding the lead to Street Sense as Curlin ranges up for 3rd…Big Brown blows the 2009 field away, followed by the filly Eight Belles, who would have been Zenyatta’s biggest threat, IMHO…and in eight days, another horse will join these legends of the track. 

The contenders are at Churchill Downs now, working out on the track’s signature dirt surface, recently certified by the NTRA’s new Safety & Integrity Alliance.  The horses come from jurisdictions that have banned steroids and cracked down on race day meds in the past 12 months, in hopes that severe injuries will become a rare occurance in the sport. 

Pioneerof The Nile worked out on the dirt yesterday, and turned in a sizzling 6 furlong drill.  This colt is ready to rock.  The polytrack question is irrelevant to me now.  He’s my top pick.

Pioneerof The Nile posts impressive dirt workout on Wednesday at Churchill Downs.  Photo from Bloodhorse.com

Pioneerof The Nile posts impressive dirt workout on Wednesday at Churchill Downs. Photo from Bloodhorse.com

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THE PLOT THICKENS

The Kentucky Derby is less than 3 weeks away, and I am so stoked over this year’s contenders that I practically twitter myself into a pool of rose-scented goo every Saturday when I watch the preps.  But you wouldn’t know that reading this blog, because life and work and school have trampled the Infield lately.  Here’s my take on the latest Derby headlines: 

OLD FASHIONED, my #1 Derby pick back on January 1 has been RETIRED!  GAahhh!  The grey colt with the white tail ran a fabulous pace-setting race in the Arkansas Derby, and nearly ran away with the whole shebang.  In the shadow of the wire, California invader PAPA CLEM got his head in front and drew off to a half-length victory.  PAPA CLEM was trying dirt for the first time and will be going to the Derby.  OLD FASHIONED suffered a knee injury during the race.  Today, owner Rick Porter announced the colt’s surgery went well, but he will never be able to race again at the top level, so Porter has sent him off to stud!  WOW.  That’s the Derby Gods for ya.  I still think Larry Jones will win the Derby — he’s still got Freisan Fire for this year.

Meanwhile, GENERAL QUARTERS ran off with the Blue Grass Stakes and will enter the Kentucky Derby the Sentimental Favorite.  GQ is the one horse in the one horse stable owned by Tom McCarthy, a former high school teacher.  McCarthy does all of the training and grooming for his star, too.  He is living every racing fan’s dream of having a colt good enough to make the field in the Derby.  You can’t overlook outsiders like General Quarters in Derby picks — remember Funny Cide?

   THE PAMPLEMOUSSE scratched out of the Santa Anita Derby because of tendon problems, totally deflating my early Derby enthusiasm.  I really wanted to see that colt in the Derby, you have no idea how much.  He will be out for the year recuperating, but the connections plan to bring him back to the races.  I will be eagerly awaiting his return.

I WANT REVENGE won the Wood Memorial last weekend in an impressive performance on a sloppy track.  The colt split horses in deep stretch and drew off with powerful acceleration.  He is dangerously good on dirt and will probably be the morning line favorite on May 2.  IEAH has done a swell job replicating their Big Brown success, and they appear poised to defend their roses.

QUALITY ROAD is the top Florida colt, having won the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby in scintillating fashion.  He’s fast up front or just off the pace.  He soundly defeated Dunkirk, who will make it in the Derby though I don’t think he belongs (he may be Todd Pletcher’s 4th last-place finisher in a row).

Who do I think will win the Derby?  The horse who has beaten Papa Clem and I Want Revenge, who had to run out of his comfort zone and set the pace in the Santa Anita Derby, who is by a Belmont-winning sire and who is trained by a man who’s seen the winners’ circle three times before:  PIONEEROF THE NILE

I’ll have more to blog about the contenders in the weeks to come, as well as the Infield itself!

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INFIELD DERBY LIST 2.0!

1. Old Fashioned (1)

2. Pioneerof The Nile (8)

3. Friesan Fire (new!)

4. Haynesfield (new!)

5. Capt. Candyman Can (new!)

6. The Pamplemousse (new!)

7. Chocolate Candy (new!)

8. Poltergeist (new!)

9. Hello Broadway (new!)

10. Imperial Council (7)

Off The List: Square Eddie (injury), Midshipman & Vineyard Haven (Dubai, could resurface), Beethoven, Breakwater Edison, Well Positioned, Charitable Man (injury)

Lots of changes since the first list Jan. 1.  Old Fashioned remains at the top until he runs next Monday.  Pioneerof The Nile moves up a bunch off of his impressive Bob Lewis effort, and would be #1 if he was a known dirt commodity.  The rest of the list is made up of newcomers.  Friesan Fire has been the strongest 3yo in the South so far, taking the 2 stakes at Fairgrounds and learning how to settle.  Haynesfield is tearing it up at Aqueduct, but distance questions surround him with that sprinter sire.  Capt. Candyman Can looked great winning the Hutcheson.  The Pamplemousse is probably #2 in California, with Chocolate Candy close behind.  Poltergeist is an intriguing allowance winner at Oaklawn looking to prove himself in stakes company.  Hello Broadway is always in the race.  Imperial COuncil is working well and needs to make a start pretty soon; his potential is what is keeping him on the list.

All of the unfortunate list-droppers could make it back in the top 10 with a good effort.  Vineyard Haven makes his 3yo debut in Dubai on Thursday, and if he is still as dominant as he was last year then he’ll be back on the list next week.  Square Eddie is out with sore shins but can rejoin the list if he recovers quickly.  At least four 3yo stakes this weekend means there could be more movementon the list.  Also, ROAD TO THE ROSES is OPEN for ENTRIES!!!

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