Race to renewal

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:41 AM ET

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Deep in tradition and pageantry, the Kentucky Derby regularly produces memorable images.

It is a big reason the great race at an historic venue has managed to maintain its status as a genuine sporting spectacle despite being part of a business that is in a long, steady state of decline.

Until now, that is.

Today, twenty three-year-old thoroughbreds will load into the starting gate for the 135th running of the Derby, a 11/4-mile whirl of heart-pounding action. And once it starts, the 150,000 at Churchill Downs, and millions more watching on television, will collectively hold their breath.

The most recent images of the Triple Crown's opening jewel are sordid, a vision that those most unfortunate enough to witness the race would rather forget.

As impressive as Big Brown was when he strode powerfully under the twin spires and across the finish line 52 weeks ago, the aftermath was disturbing on many levels.

Seconds after the race, the triumph of the winner turned to tragedy for the runner-up, filly Eight Belles. She too galloped past the wire but to the horror of all those watching, soon dropped to her knees with both ankles fractured.

By the time trainer Larry Jones could get to her, the filly was in the process of being euthanized, a sickening end to the most exciting two minutes in sports.

If animal rights activists didn't smell blood then, it got worse days later when Big Brown's obnoxious trainer, Richard Dutrow, boasted of regularly juicing his horses with steroids, which was legal at the time.

In a rare bit of responsibility, the splintered racing industry has scrambled to control the damage in the wake of last year's Derby, from outlawing steroids to promoting track safety. There are still problems in both areas, though things are getting better.

What is clear, however, is that the game can ill afford to have another debacle on its biggest stage.

With last year in mind, it will be an emotional day for Jones, who returns to a race that may owe him one. Two years ago, Jones was runner-up with Hard Spun which had to be easy to digest when compared with last year's catastrophe.

He is back with another serious contender in Friesan Fire, a winner of his past three starts. Of the many compelling stories in today's race -- which seems top heavy with no-hope long shots -- it will be difficult not to root for (and even wager on) the 5-1 morning-line prospect.

"I don't know that the Derby gods owe me anything," Jones said this week. "I've run second in the last two Derbys and I feel very blessed to have even had a horse to run in two in a row.

"But trust me: If they feel they want to shine on me, I'm gonna grin from ear to ear."

If Jones is one of the feel-good stories leading up to today's race then Jeff Mullins, the trainer of favourite I Want Revenge, will play the villain's role so capably executed a year ago by Big Brown's connections.

Like Dutrow, Mullins is brash and unapologetic for his transgressions.

On the day I Want Revenge won the Wood Memorial in his most recent start, Mullins was caught illegally administering medication to another horse at New York's Aqueduct Racetrack.

He was subsequently suspended for a week, but to illustrate how indifferent racing seems to be to making a stand on integrity, that suspension doesn't begin until tomorrow morning.

Mullins claimed he made "an honest mistake," though it's difficult to fathom what is so virtuous about a trainer carrying an oral syringe on race day.

"We have seen the best and the worst of it," Jones said of his Derby experience a year ago.

He is bang on, of course, on too many levels.

ROB.LONGLEY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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