LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The cast is set for Saturday's 134th running of the Kentucky Derby and a full field of 20 is scheduled to respond to the bugle and parade to the post to the haunting melody and lyrics of My Old Kentucky Home. The playing of the theme hymn of the Derby is likely to be the only thing gentle about the proceedings.
When the starting gate springs open, the battle for position will begin and an avalanche of sorts will rumble from the outside to the inside, as the horses with early speed seek a spot from which to avoid the dreaded loss of ground on the first turn.
The Derby post draw placed most of the speed on the outside, from the 13th slot in the gate occupied by Bob Black Jack to the projected favorite Big Brown, which will start widest of all. Potential pace factors Cowboy Cal, Recapturetheglory and Gayego are in between.
Much emphasis has been attached to the geometric computation verifying that the difference in distance from gate to bend breaking from the inside compared to the outside is miniscule. The real issue, however, involves how much use must be made of a horse to obtain good position going into the turn and the consequences of going wide around the bend if unsuccessful.
It would be one thing if all the horses to the inside would politely take back and allow the wave from the outside free passage to good inside position. It won't happen. The filly Eight Belles will be winging away from the gate and Cool Coal Man and Tale of Ekati will probably be forwardly placed as well. And their riders will be instructed to hold position.
So the trip to the first turn will be replete with bumping and jostling as the jockeys engage in what is known around the track as "race riding." Getting to the first turn is but a part of the battle, for then a horse and its rider must get around it.
The importance of getting around that first turn without incident and too much loss of ground cannot be over-emphasized. More Derbies have been won or lost there than anywhere else on the track. Native Dancer is said to have suffered his lone defeat as a result of a bumping incident with Money Broker on the first turn in the '53 Derby. Valiant Nature was knocked into the fence in '94, losing all meaningful chance.
In the words of Eoin Harty, conditioner of the stout contender Colonel John, "The race will be dictated by what happens on the first turn. I'm very concerned about getting in and out of the first turn in one piece."
The run down the backstretch is relatively non-confrontational as the field sorts itself out in preparation for the traffic jam that almost always occurs on the far turn. A fast pace spreads the field farther here while a slow pace bunches it up.
How fast will they go Saturday ? When asked his guesstimate of the fraction after a half mile, Louie Roussel, part-owner and trainer of the speedy Recapturetheglory, replied, "Forty-five."
If he's right, this Derby will have a very fast pace. Only once (in 2001) has the half-mile fraction been faster.
The good news of some spreading of the field in the run down the backstretch will soon be overshadowed by what awaits on the far turn - as the field passes the track kitchen. A price must be paid when horses run too fast too early in a grueling race like the Derby. Some, if not all, of the early leaders will go into reverse just as the closers begin to run. A huge traffic jam is likely to occur.
Few horses can regain momentum after being stopped in their tracks. Little Current, the best horse in the 100th running of the Derby in which 23 horses competed, actually broke stride approaching the three-eighths pole when a horse stopped directly in front of him as he attempted to close from the trailing position in the field. He pulled himself together and closed strongly in the stretch, but could do no better than fifth.
Then, finally, comes the run down "Agony Lane," which definitively sorts the contenders from the pretenders. Everything that has happened in the race to this point factors in to how much a horse has left for this ordeal.
So, if a horse gets a clean break, gets position in the first run down the stretch, gets around the first turn in one piece, gets in position down the backstretch to launch his bid, avoids traffic around the far turn without going too wide and has a kick left for the full quarter mile of straightaway that lies ahead, he or she will have had the "garden trip" and may well win.
The "garden trip" is impossible to predict which combination of horse and rider will have it.
Unable to come up with any better way of explaining it, close observers of the sport of racing simply call it "racing luck."