In the last of this great series by Billy Reed, you’ll find out who the Hall of Fame turf writer likes in this year’s race, always subject to change, of course. Thanks to LouisvilleCatholicSports.
By Billy Reed
This is the one you’ve been awaiting, right? The one where I bring into play all the wisdom I’ve gained on the Kentucky Derby trail since 1964, when I got a freelance assignment to cover the Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland for the Toronto Star.
The Toronto paper was interested in the Blue Grass because the favored Northern Dancer was owned by E.P. Taylor, the noted Canadian industrialist. I wrote my story on an Underwood typewriter, sent it to Toronto via Western Union – no computers in those days – and gave a carbon copy to my boss at the afternoon Lexington Leader, who ran it along with Kent Hollingsworth’s race piece.
And so did my turf writing career begin.
I didn’t make it to that year’s Derby, which Northern Dancer won at the end of a thrilling stretch duel with Hill Rise, and I also missed jockey Bill Shoemaker’s win on Lucky Debonair in 1965. But I reported to the Churchill Downs backside in 1966 and have spent a day or two there every spring since, wandering around in search of stories.
I’ve only missed the Derby twice in the last 45 years and I had good excuses both times. When it came time for the Derby, it felt strange to not be in the pressbox at Churchill, listening to the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home.” I felt disoriented, as if I had been captured by space aliens and taken out of my world.
I guess I’ve just about seen it all over the past 45 years. I’ve seen the Derby won by favorites and longshots, by colts and geldings and fillies, by gentlemen and scoundrels. I’ve seen winners go wire-to-wire and I’ve seen others come from far off the pace. I’ve seen the Derby won by horses on their way to the Triple Crown and I’ve seen it won by horses who never won another race.
And after all this, after amassing all this information and experience, I can honestly tell you I don’t have a clue about how to pick the winner.
I’ve picked a few longshots in my career, most notably Proud Clarion ($62.20) in 1967, my second Derby. But I’ve also had more than my share of embarrassments. In 1973, I picked Forego to beat Secretariat. I ignored Barbaro in 2006. I’m sure I had good reasons, but I can’t remember them.
In the last decade, picking the Derby winner has evolved from merely difficult to nearly impossible. For one thing, today’s trainers baby their horses, giving them only a few starts, which makes it harder to get a line on them. For another, the advent of artificial surfaces adds a handicapping factor that vexes even the experts.
Most significantly, every Derby now has a 20-horse field. If spots are open, owners are going to fill them, even if they know their horse has little or no credentials. They feel entitled to be part of the Derby hoopla and never think about cluttering up the field. So now, as if it’s not enough to be asked to run a mile and a quarter for the first time, the Derby horses are required to fight through the biggest field they’ve ever encountered – or will ever encounter again.
Like everybody else in Louisville at this time of year, I begin conversations with “Who’s your Derby horse?” I ask it in the hope that I’ll hear something I’ve overlooked or had considered lightly. Depending on how much I respect the person to whom I’m talking, I can be easily convinced to go back to the drawing board or even change my mind on the spot.
Sometimes I get the right information from a good source and disregard it. In 1986, for example, I remember a lot of people telling me that nobody was going into the race any better than Ferdinand. I ignored that and listened to my trainer friend D. Wayne Lukas, who was touting Badger Land. I should have known better than to bet on a horse named after Wisconsin. At least, that’s what I thought when Ferdinand came through on the rail to win and Badger Land finished fifth.
I’m still kicking myself for not betting Gato Del Sol in 1983 and Monarchos in 2001. In both cases, I had close personal ties to the horse’s connections. Arthur B. Hancock III, the breeder and owner of Gato, was a dear friend of many years. And I had gone to high school with Donna Ward, wife of trainer John T. Ward, who trained Monarchos for John Oxley.
Dumb, dumb, dumb.
I almost must admit that I have an almost pathological aversion to favorites, unless he or she is clearly and unmistakably the best horse in the field. There was no way I could pick against Seattle Slew in 1977 or Spectacular Bid in ’79. I felt they were good enough to overcome anything, even bad racing luck.
This year, after studying all the charts and watching the prep races and listening to the experts, I’m giving half the field no chance to win – Animal Kingdom, Brilliant Speed, Comma to the Top, Decisive Moment, Derby Kitten, Pants on Fire, Santiva, Stay Thirsty, Twinspired, and Watch Me Go.
Of the remaining 10, I think there’s a good chance that owner Mike Repole, despite all his bluster, will decide to scratch Uncle Mo on the grounds that he hasn’t recovered 100 per cent from the gastrointestinal problem that apparently had much to do with his third-place finish in the Wood Memorial. Even if he’s healthy and runs, I’m not sure he can get the mile and a quarter.
I’m apprehensive about eliminating Twice the Appeal because jockey Calvin Borel has shown he has the magic touch on Derby Day. He has won three of the last four, including last year on Super Saver, and Twice the Appeal will draw a lot of money simply because of his presence in the saddle. If Calvin can do it again, I’ll be the first to canonize him. But I just can’t see it.
I’m betting that Nehro, who got up for a hard-charging second in both the Louisiana and Arkansas Derbies, is a “sucker” horse who will get trapped in traffic on Saturday. But I reserve the right to change my mind on this one because, well, I’m a sucker for this kind of horse.
So that leaves seven.
I must agree that Dialed In is a deserving favorite. Never mind that I’ve known and liked trainer Nick Zito for years. Looking at his pedigree and his performances, you have to really reach to knock Dialed In and I’m not prepared to do that.
The horses I think have the best chance of upsetting him are Soldat and Mucho Macho Man. I’ve convinced himself to throw out Soldat’s dull race in the Florida Derby. I’ve also convinced myself that Mucho Macho Man would have won the Louisiana Derby had he not thrown a shoe at the start.
So who else to play in the Superfecta (first four finishers, in order)? Well, I’m down to four horses – Archarcharch, Shackleford, Master of Hounds, and Midnight Interlude.
Each has something to overcome. With Archarcharch, it’s the No. 1 post. No horse has won from the rail since Ferdinand in ’86 and it has been a death sentence in the era of the 20-horse field. Master of Hounds is a mystery horse who has never run in this country, but was impressive in finishing second in the Dubai Derby. Midnight Interlude pulled a stunning upset in the Santa Anita Derby, but might be too green to win the roses. And Shackleford gave way at the end of the Florida Derby, allowing Dialed In to collar him at the wire.
You want me to commit? O.K., the Reed System picks, in order, are Archarcharch, Soldat, Dialed In and Shackleford.