Because 3-year-old thoroughbreds are the equine equivalent of maturing teenagers, and because none have ever raced at the classic distance of 1¼ miles—or, in the case of most, ever will again—let alone in an overcrowded field of 20, the Kentucky Derby is a uniquely challenging handicapping exercise. Half the field is eliminated in the wild first half-mile, regardless of class. Others are compromised by overeager jockeys making poor decisions. Still others should never have been entered, but their connections can't resist the lure of running a horse in by far the most important race in America, though a new entry-by-points system has helped keep some of the pretenders out.
Unbeaten in four starts, including the Wood Memorial on April 6, and named for the bridge that connects Staten Island to Brooklyn, Verrazano is fighting a time-honored streak: No horse unraced as a 2-year-old has won the Derby at three since 1882; Verrazano's first race was on Jan. 1.
Trainer Shug McGaughey, who last saddled a Derby horse in 2002 (Saarland, finished 10th), has guided Orb through a flawless spring campaign, culminating with a win in the March 30 Florida Derby. Orb is a big bay colt who likes to come from behind, which leaves him at the whim of race traffic.
Conditioned by Doug O'Neill—who trained last year's Derby-Preakness champ, I'll Have Another, while facing scrutiny for his doping record (the California Horse Racing Board banned him for 45 days in 2012 for one violation)—Goldencents won the Santa Anita Derby on April 6 going away.
The Louisiana Derby winner has the same owner-trainer-jockey team as 2010 Kentucky Derby champ Super Saver: WinStar Farm, Todd Pletcher and Calvin Borel, 46, the Cajun who also won roses in '07 (Street Sense) and in '09 (Mine That Bird).
The Points System
The Derby field is capped at 20 horses. After years of choosing runners based on graded stakes earnings, Churchill Downs implemented a system this year in which horses were instead awarded points for performances in important prep races. This method would have helped eliminate pretenders such as Trinniberg, who earned a place in the 2012 Derby by winning lucrative short sprint races but nothing over seven furlongs. (The colt finished 17th.) This year's field is certain to be the best-credentialed in years, though there will still be horses racing out of their class.
Old Horse, Old Trick
D. Wayne Lukas, 77, has saddled 45 Derby starters, more than any other trainer in history. He has won four times, the last with Charismatic in 1999 (his third Derby winner in five years). But his 10 entrants since '99 have an average finish of 12th; he didn't have a starter in 2011 and just 11th-place Optimizer in '12. His Derby days seemed finished.
Instead, Lukas will send two colts to the starting gate on Saturday, one-two Rebel Stakes finishers Will Take Charge and Oxbow. He has a chance to become the oldest winning trainer in Derby history, surpassing Charlie Whittingham, who was 76 with when he and the ageless Bill Shoemaker won with Ferdinand in 1986.
Pletcher Power Rankings
Since 2000, he's run 31 horses in the Derby with only one victory. Pletcher will have five starters on Saturday—and may even have a record six if he enters late qualifier Winning Cause, who triumphed in the Coolmore Lexington Stakes on April 20 at Keeneland, where he is undefeated in three starts.
VerrazanoUnbeaten in four lifetime starts
RevolutionaryComing off three straight wins
OveranalyzeWon Arkansas Derby weeks after losing Gotham Stakes
Palace MaliceHasn't won since August maiden score
Charming KittenWill go off at odds of at least 40--1
Is the Race Clean?
Cleaner would be a better description. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission will keep horses under round-the-clock surveillance in the last 72 hours before the race. A year ago, I'll Have Another's Triple Crown chase was overshadowed at times by O'Neill's doping history (as was Big Brown's by trainer Rick Dutrow's rap sheet in 2008). Recently The New York Times reported that California racing authorities are investigating the sudden deaths of 17 horses this year; Bob Baffert, a three-time Derby winner, has lost seven since January '12. The added surveillance is meant to help restore public confidence.
40 years ago
On May 4, 1973, the great Secretariat set the still-standing Derby record of 1:592/5 in winning the first leg of his Triple Crown.
Riding into History?
Rosie Napravnik Two years ago she was ninth in the Derby atop Pants On Fire, the best finish ever for a female rider, and when she guided Shanghai Bobby to victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall, it looked as if she had this year's favorite. But Bobby didn't make it to Louisville, so Napravnik, 25, will be on Louisiana Derby runner-up Mylute.
Kevin Krigger African-American riders won 15 of the first 28 derbies, but racism caused the presence of blacks in the sport to dwindle to almost nothing over the next generation—the last black jockey to win the Derby was Jimmy Winfield in 1902. With the mount on Goldencents, Krigger, 29, will be only the second black jockey to start a Derby in 90 years—the last was Marlon St. Julien in 2000.
Gary Stevens Oxbow will be the Hall of Famer's 19th Derby mount, second in the field only to Mike Smith, whose 20th will be on Palace Malice. Stevens retired in November 2005 and then returned last January at age 49; during his hiatus he portrayed bitter, aging jockey Ronnie Jenkins in the short-lived HBO series Luck. The oldest Derby-winning rider was 54-year-old Bill Shoemaker, on Ferdinand in 1986.
It's expensive to play at horse racing. The path to riches for some of this year's Derby owners:
VyjackOn-line prom dresses
Java's WarDiamond exploration
SCOTT SERIO/ECLIPSE/ZUMAPRESS.COM (VERRAZANO)
GARRY JONES/AP (REVOLUTIONARY)
BILL FRAKES/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (STARTING GATE)
ROB CARR/GETTY IMAGES (LUKAS)
GARRY JONES/AP (NAPRAVNIK)
ALEX EVERS/ECLIPSE/ZUMAPRESS.COM (KRIGGER)
DANNY JOHNSTON/AP (STEVENS)
STEVE EVANS/PHOTONICA/GETTY IMAGES (SYRINGE)
ERICK W. RASCO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (VITAMINWATER)
STEVE YOUNG/FOTOLIA.COM (DIAMOND)
HAROLD LEE MILLER/CORBIS (DRESS)