What Really Counts When Picking A Kentucky Derby Winner

Keeneland, unmatched for its beauty, attracted a crowd of 24,898 for its April 7 opening and may surpass that for this Saturday’s Blue Grass Stakes, a major Kentucky Derby prep. On-track betting was $1,406,538.49 and the total betting including simulcast was $9,941,764.

Keeneland, unmatched for its beauty, attracted a crowd of 24,898 for its April 7 opening and may surpass that for this Saturday’s Blue Grass Stakes, a major Kentucky Derby prep. On-track betting was $1,406,538.49 and the total betting including simulcast was $9,941,764.

It’s not a scientific exercise.  It’s more a gut feeling than anything else.

The Kentucky Derby almost always results in a great, touching story about the winner.

The stories are so remarkable that it often seems that deciding which Derby horses possesses the best back story might be a more profitable method than poring over past performances, speed figures and notes on traffic woes.

So, as a public service, here is a list of thumbnail sketches of the stories that have caught my eye so far during the Kentucky Derby 138 season.

HANSEN — If the reigning 2-year-old champion runs well in Saturday’s Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, I think he’ll be the Derby favorite.

Not only will he be accomplished on the racetrack with five wins in six races, his color will drop his odds by a few points.  Hansen is so gray he is nearly white and his owner, Dr. Kendall Hansen, wears a T-shirt that bears the words: “The Great White Hope.”

Hansen will be an irresistible bet for a lot of casual racing fans, many of whom seem to gravitate to grays.  That group is in ample supply on the first Saturday in May.

OPTIMIZER — He’s owned by former Franklin, Ky. tobacco farmer Brad Kelley, who is the richest Kentuckian you’ve never heard of.

Kelley founded Commonwealth Brands Tobacco Company in 1990, which Fortune magazine reported that he sold for $1 billion a decade later.

That publication ranks him at around 600 on its list of the world’s richest people.

But what makes Optimizer most interesting to me is he is trained by Hall of Famer and four-time Derby winner D. Wayne Lukas.  Lukas is now 76, with his next birthday looming on Sept. 12.  Charlie Whittingham became the oldest trainer to saddle a Derby winner when Sunday Silence won the 1989 Derby, just after the “Bald Eagle” had celebrated his 76th birthday on April 13.

Optimizer runs in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park.

TAKE CHARGE INDY — If this son of A.P. Indy wins the Derby, the headline should read “The Return of Pat Byrne.”

The British-born trainer was a national sensation in 1997, when he had ‘Horse of the Year” and 2-year-old champion Favorite Trick and 2-year-old filly champion Princess Diana in his barn. The following year he guided Awesome Again to a surprise victory over the greatest field ever assembled in U.S. racing in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.

Things have been quiet for Byrne in recent years until his well-bred colt upset early Derby favorite Union Rags in the Florida Derby to firmly establish his Derby 138 credentials.

The Derby is a huge hole on the talented Byrne’s résumé and a win would put him right back in racing’s spotlight.

And there’s a bonus: Take Charge Indy will have three-time Derby winner Calvin Borel in the saddle.

UNION RAGS — This talented colt could still be the favorite on Derby Day despite his third-place finish behind Take Charge Indy in the Florida Derby, a race in which he encountered traffic woes and ran seriously for only a furlong or so.

He’s trained by Michael Matz, who saddled the ill-fated Barbaro to win the 2006 Derby.

Along with being a top-notch trainer, Matz’s bio makes him a compelling presence when he shows up for any race.  He had a remarkable career as a show jumping rider and was chosen to carry the U.S. flag for the closing ceremonies at the 1996 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

Seven years before that he was praised for his heroism in the crash of United Airlines Flight 232, which suffered mechanical failure and slammed into a Souix City, Iowa cornfield.

Matz led four children to safety in the aftermath of the crash that took 111 lives.

Three of those children – siblings who were traveling alone on the flight – were at Churchill Downs with Matz and his wife D.D., who was traveling with Matz on that day, for Barbaro’s mesmerizing Derby triumph.

WENT THE DAY WELL — Team Valor’s winner of the Lane’s End Spiral at Turfway Park is following the successful path to Kentucky Derby roses used by stablemate Animal Kingdom a year ago.

He’s trained by Graham Motion and a victory in Derby 138 would be the first back-to-back wins by an owner-trainer team since Riva Ridge and Secretariat won the race in 1972 and ’73, respectively.

GEMOLOGIST — The unbeaten winner of the Wood Memorial will attempt to follow in the footsteps of recent stars Barbaro and Smarty Jones (2004), who won the Kentucky Derby with spotless records.

He would be the second Derby winner for both WinStar Farm and trainer Todd Pletcher, who teamed to win in 2010 with Super Saver.

ALPHA — This son of Bernardini could finally provide the Dubai-based Godolphin and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum with a long-awaited Kentucky Derby victory.

America’s greatest race is one of the few prizes to elude Godolphin, despite untold millions spent in the effort to win it.

Lexington native Kiaran McLaughlin has trained the Wood Memorial runner-up in the U.S., a departure from the earlier Godolphin strategy in which its Derby hopefuls trained in Dubai before shipping to Kentucky. The best finish yielded by that plan was a sixth-place run by China Visit in 2000.

DULLAHAN — Trained by Louisville native Dale Romans, this half-brother to longshot 2009 Derby winner Mine That Bird runs in Saturday’s Blue Grass.

DADDY LONG LEGS/WROTE — Both are trained by Irish training king Aidan O’Brien, who won two races in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs and would love to add a Kentucky Derby to his fantastic résumé with the 1-3 finishers in Dubai’s UAE Derby.

There are more good stories, to be sure — but those should get you started with just over three weeks to go until Kentucky Derby 138.

Photo By GARRY JONES | Contributing Photographer