For the majority of the Kentucky Derbyâ€™s countless fans across North America and abroad â€“ and especially those who grew up in our region with the Derby and Thoroughbred racing as part of their DNA â€“ the big race on the first Saturday in May is and will always be an affair of the heart.
Emotions run amok, especially in the days leading up to the mile and quarter test for 3-year-olds and on the day of the great race itself. Those emotions and, more to the point, the individual attachments they create, frequently create an ongoing battle between the head and the heart when we approach the job of finding the winner of the race and, for bettors, assembling the contenders that will be close at the finish to complete a trifecta or superfecta ticket that will, at least temporarily, adjust your income tax bracket.
This yearâ€™s 141st running of Americaâ€™s greatest races will include a field of 20 horses that, as a group, have prompted more than a few longtime observers to suggest that the group could be one of the stronger fields in recent Derby history. There are at least seven horses that could have been the Derby favorite had they been born in other years.
But despite their accomplishments and promise, thereâ€™s a clear feeling that six of those seven could be incredibly unlucky to have been born in the same year as Zayat Stablesâ€™ American Pharoah, who will be a solid-to-strong favorite when the Derby is run early Saturday evening.
After a poor outing in his career debut, the Bob Baffert-trained American Pharoah has reeled off four consecutive victories in major stakes races. During that streak he spent considerable time on the sidelines because of an injury he suffered prior to a planned run in the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile. But he came back as good as ever â€“ and as advertised â€“ this spring, with wins in the Rebel and Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park.
American Pharoah has turned as many heads with his training in the morning. He glides effortlessly over every racing surface he sees. His five-furlong work in :58.40 was as impressive as most any work turned in by a Derby contender in my time at the track â€“ and this will be my 34th consecutive Derby as a reporter or, since 1997, as a member of the Churchill Downs team.
Gary Young, who has been a respected clocker and bloodstock agent on the West Coast for 35 years, told Churchill Downsâ€™ communications department after Sundayâ€™s work that American Pharoah â€œmight be the best horse Iâ€™ve ever seen.â€
His four wins have come by a combined margin of 22 Â¼ lengths, and he has an experienced partner in the saddle in Victor Espinoza, a two-time Derby winner who piloted War Emblem â€“ Baffertâ€™s most recent Derby winner â€“ in 2002 and California Chrome last year.
Comments like Youngâ€™s, and American Pharoahâ€™s dazzling on-track presence in his races and his training only serve to fuel speculation that Baffertâ€™s latest star could prove to be a stick-out in a group of potentially important horses. A few suggest, although they do so quietly, that he could be the type of horse that could end Americanâ€™s Triple Crown drought thatâ€™s been in place since Affirmed, trainer Laz Barrera and Kentucky-born riding legend Steve Cauthen swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1978.
Heâ€™s the type of horse that could be on or just off the lead at the head of the stretch before, on Espinozaâ€™s cue, he bids a quick farewell and draws away in the stretch.
But before we declare American Pharoah to be the Roadrunner to 19 pursuing Wile E. Coyotes, letâ€™s acknowledge this: it is possible that the Derby favorite might not be the best horse in his own barn.
Baffert also trains Kaleem Shahâ€™s Dortmund, a son of 2008 Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown, who is unbeaten in six races. The last four wins have come in stakes races, with the most recent being the Santa Anita Derby. His second victory came in an allowance race at Churchill Downs at the end of November.
An imposing presence that stands more than 17 hands, Dortmund has seemed to improve with each race. While we can only speculate on what might happen when the to-date untouchable American Pharoah is finally challenged in a race, we know that Dortmund is a fighter. He twice shook off major challenges from fellow Derby hope Firing Line and cruised when Firing Line declined to enter the ring for Round Three in the Santa Anita Derby.
The Baffert duo is the strongest pre-race one-two Kentucky Derby punch for a single trainer in memory, and it will be a surprise if his stars are not the top two choices in fan betting on Kentucky Derby Day.
Their only point of reference in Derby history, at this point, is the Calumet Farm Derby duo of Citation and Coaltown, who ran 1-2 as a single betting interest for legendary trainer Ben Jones in 1948. Citation went on to sweep the Triple Crown â€“ the last horse to do so until Secretariatâ€™s tour de force sweep 25 years later in 1973 â€“ on his way to 19 wins in 20 races in his 3-year-old season and the post-season honor of â€œHorse of the Year.â€
When â€œBig Cyâ€ missed the next year with injury, Coaltown was named Horse of Year in a split decision of nationwide polls. Both Calumet horses are now enshrined in racingâ€™s Hall of Fame.
Stablemates American Pharoah and Dortmund have work to do in that they are to rival the career accomplishments of the Calumet stars, but living up to the high hopes they have inspired for this yearâ€™s Kentucky Derby would be a big step in that direction.
But for either to win, theyâ€™ll need to deal with several major rivals that include:
Carpe Diem: winner of the back-to-dirt Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland, whose only non-winning effort was a runner-up finish in the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile. Trainer Todd Pletcher (Super Saver, 2010) and jockey John Velazquez (Animal Kingdom, 2011) have visited the Derby winnerâ€™s circle.
Mubtaahij: While American Pharoah is the pre-race glamour boy of a most promising group of three-year-olds â€“ imagine him as Justin Timberlake to his mates in the wildly popular Nâ€™Sync â€“ the most fascinating member of the Derby field outside of the favorite could be the winner of the $2 million UAE Derby. Heâ€™s a stretch-runner in a field of speed horses and pace-stalkers and heâ€™s already run 1 3/16 miles twice in Dubai â€“ the first horse to have that type of experience at or close to the Derbyâ€™s 1 Â¼-mile distance since Canonero II scored his mammoth Derby upset in 1971.
His trainer â€“ South African star Mike de Kock â€“ has made six trips to the U.S. for major races and has yet to see a horse finish worse than third.
And heâ€™s a horse of the world and the still-new millennium: heâ€™s owned by a Sheikh from Dubai, trained by a South African, bred in Ireland and ridden by Belgian-born jockey Christophe Soumillon, who will â€“ like de Kock â€“ make his Derby debut.
American fans are a bit unclear on the pronunciation of his name, but thereâ€™s a chance we will all be schooled in the proper pronunciation of Mubtaahij after they cross the finish in Derby 141 on Saturday.
Frosted: Representing Dubai-based Godolphin, and trained in the U.S. by Lexington native Kiaran McLaughlin, the gray son of Tapit has overcome adversity on the road to Louisville and heads into the Derby off a sparkling win in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. He could be the one to give Dubaiâ€™s Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum the Derby win he has sought for more than 20 years.
Upstart: Trainer Rick Violetteâ€™s colt never runs a bad race, but is a bit of a forgotten horse heading into the Derby.
Firing Line: He has twice battled Dortmund eye-to-eye, so we know heâ€™s a serious horse. His pedigree suggests distance could be a concern, but his races show that his heart is not in question.
Other Derby contenders of note include unbeaten Florida Derby winner Materiality, a Pletcher-trained colt who did not race at two, an obstacle last overcome by Apollo in 1882; Ken and Sarah Ramseyâ€™s International Star, a scrappy colt who leads the Derby point system but, despite three consecutive stakes wins this spring, has garnered little serious recognition as a major contender; Bolo, a California import who could be the latest horse to prove that runners with grass in their pedigree find a friend in the dirt surface at Churchill Downs; Far Right, who loves Churchill Downs and gets the magic of three-time Derby winner Calvin Borel in the saddle; Itsaknockout, who runs for the Louisville-based Starlight Racing partnership and is the hunch bet of all Derby hunch bets given that the Derby shares the sports day with the blockbuster Mayweather-Pacquiao fight in Vegas; and Keen Ice, a longshot stretch runner trained by Louisville native Dale Romans, whose horses usually run when he gives them a shot in the Derby.
Now, a word about transparency to those who have stopped in this corner for a pre-Derby note through the years: each week from January until this week I have rated Carpe Diem atop my list of Derby candidates. While he held my utmost respect, I had resisted the urge to move American Pharoah to the top spot in my Derby ratings.
That is until Sunday, when American Pharoah left a vapor trail in his brilliant five-furlong Sunday work. Which moved me to look in the mirror and ask: are you going to try again to beat a deserving favorite, or are you going to believe your eyes?
The eyes have it.