|Kentucky Derby 4-1 favourite Dialed In with excercise rider Carlos Correa, is led to the track during morning workouts Thursday in preparation for the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby. ( Jamie Squire/Getty Images/AFP
If it’s the first Saturday in May, it must be time for the “most exciting two minutes in sport.”
With all the slow horses crawling their way to Louisville for this year’s Kentucky Derby, you might want to tack on a little more viewing time than those two minutes when Saturday’s early evening post time rolls around.
A spring dominated by injuries and so-so performances on the trail to the 137th Run for the Roses hasn’t exactly spawned talk of Triple Crown fever.
Uncle Mo, who was hailed all winter as the next super horse, got slow over the past couple of months. And to top it off, a mystery ailment that hindered his training recently, caused trainer Todd Pletcher to withdraw his horse from the field on Friday morning.
“It’s very, very disappointing,” said Pletcher, who won last year’s race with Super Saver. “I don’t think I have had a horse as good as Uncle Mo. I take this as a personal failure.”
So along with the speed, the race is now void of its primary star power as well. No need for Pletcher to take it personally, however: He’s not alone in delivering relatively inferior animals to Churchill Downs this spring.
Expert handicappers are saying the group of 19 (one below the max because of Uncle Mo’s defection) may be the worst in decades. And it’s not as if the past two editions featured a stellar group of three-year-olds, either.
Last year’s field was so wishy-washy that the favourite went off at odds of more than 6-1 and Super Saver, the second choice in wagering, paid $18.
The previous year, Canadian bred Mine That Bird shocked the Twin Spires and paid more than $100 to win, the longest-priced winner in Derby history.
This year the alarmingly modest bunch is to this date anyway, collectively slow by conventional methods of evaluation.
The most commonly used barometer to compare the quality of horses is a system called the Beyer Speed Figures. In the past 25 years, the average winning figure in the Derby has been 109. There isn’t a horse in the field that was better than 98 in his final Derby prep race.
Dialed In was assigned favourite’s status at odds of 4-1, but Churchill Downs linemaker Mike Battaglia had to pick someone.
“My colt does what he has to do to win,” said Dialed In’s trainer Nick Zito, a two-time Derby winner. “It’s not his fault he was born in this crop of horses.”
That said, the Florida Derby winner has just four lifetime starts, historically blasphemous credentials for the Derby favourite. He barely beat a 68-1 shot in the Florida race and did in slow time.
Just as every NHL draft class can’t have a Sidney Crosby or Steven Stamkos in it, not every generation of thoroughbreds has a superstar in its ranks either.
There are all sorts of theories about why horses produced for the Derby no longer seem to be the stars they once were. In the eyes of many, the breed has changed to focus on (ironically) speed horses although with the ability to excel at shorter distances than the Derby’s 1 1/4 miles in mind.
The offshoot of that trend is that, generally speaking, thoroughbreds aren’t as durable as they once were, which would help to explain the injuries that took a half dozen horses off the trail this year.
“No one really has burned it up,” said trainer Bob Baffert, who will saddle Midnite Interlude. “But they are pretty evenly matched.”
For many who make the Derby the only race they watch all year, the quality of the field is immaterial.
Historic Churchill Downs will still be packed, the ladies will wear fancy hats and people will ruin good bourbon by mixing it with sugary, minty water.
And yes, the winner will forever be a part of the sport’s history.