HORSE RACING hasbenefited in recent years from a succession of appealing Triple Crown storylines that helped elevate the sport for the fan who turns to racing only for afew weeks each spring. Funny Cide's Everyman owners (2003) were followed bySmarty Jones's survival tale ('04), Afleet Alex's connection to the memory of alittle girl who had bravely battled cancer ('05), Barbaro's tragic injury inthe Preakness ('06) and Street Sense's Kentucky Derby win ('07) for venerabletrainer Carl Nafzger and 40-year-old Cajun jockey Calvin Borel.
The tide ofserendipity began turning when Curlin won the '07 Preakness; two of his ownershad been accused of—and were later found guilty of—bilking clients out ofmillions, and trainer Steve Asmussen had spent half of the previous year onsuspension for illegally drugging his horses. Last year Big Brown won the Derbyand the Preakness but left many fans feeling less than celebratory aftertrainer Rick Dutrow, who has a long history of drug violations (involvinghimself and his horses), admitted to regularly injecting his horses with thenlegal anabolic steroids.
The '09 Derby willbe run on May 2, and given the news of the last two weeks, racing has an evengreater need of a feel-good story. Owner-breeder Ernie Paragallo, who startedfour horses in the Kentucky Derby from 1996 through 2004, was arrested andcharged last Friday with 22 counts of cruelty to animals for neglecting the 177thoroughbreds on his farm in upstate New York. And California-based JeffMullins, who trains likely Kentucky Derby favorite I Want Revenge, was found inpossession of a syringe that he reportedly used on Gato Go Win on April 4 atAqueduct—the same day that I Want Revenge won the Wood Memorial there.
Fortunately, thereare likely Derby entries whose backstories could shine a light away from thesuspicion and the sport's flagging mainstream relevance. One year after histalented filly Eight Belles was euthanized with two broken ankles following hersecond-place finish in the Derby, trainer Larry Jones is expected to sendLouisiana Derby winner Friesan Fire to the post at Churchill Downs. FriesanFire prepped for the Derby by sweeping three races at Fair Grounds Racetrack,but he will be coming off a seven-week break. (Jones's other potential KentuckyDerby starter, winter-book favorite Old Fashioned, was injured in a runner-upfinish to Papa Clem in last Saturday's Arkansas Derby.)
Tom McCarthy, a75-year-old retired high school principal, won Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes atKeeneland with General Quarters, whom he claimed last year for $20,000. GeneralQuarters has made 10 starts in less than a year with McCarthy, who also trainsthe colt, and has steadily improved.
The Derby will havea full field of 20 horses, with others—including possibly the talentedDunkirk—left out because they failed to accrue sufficient graded earnings. Evenminus Old Fashioned, the field is regarded as potentially one of the best inthe last decade.
After GeneralQuarters's win at stately Keeneland, McCarthy was given a standing ovation.Asked if he had ever expected to saddle a Derby starter, he said, "I washoping."
His words coulddescribe the state of the sport: hoping for the right kind of Derby winner.
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More Derby news and analysis from Tim Layden.
Three for the Money
SI's early favorites for the 135th running of theKentucky Derby:
Florida Derby runner-up is still not assured of making the field (only $150,000in graded stakes earnings), but he's getting better fast and could end trainerTodd Pletcher's 0-for-21 nightmare in the Run for the Roses.
I WANT REVENGE
His victory in the Wood Memorial despite a rough trip was a monsterperformance, the type that 3-year-olds are not supposed to produce in earlyspring.
PIONEEROF THE NILE
Santa Anita Derby winner is untested on dirt at three, but also unbeaten infour starts since being turned over to trainer Bob Baffert last fall.
GUIDING PRINCIPAL Former educator McCarthy (below) will saddle his first Derby starter, the Blue Grass Stakes winner.
[See caption above]