Equal opportunity at the Kentucky Derby

Where billionaires and Arab sheiks mingle with lesser Backstreet Boys and B-movie actresses with three names, and all that stuff about how every horse can win turns out to be sorta true.

Topics: Horse racing,

What I don’t know about horse racing would weigh down the moon, but at the moment that’s not a problem. Nobody else knows anything, either. The morning-line favorite in the 128th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday is Harlan’s Holiday at 9-2. They’ve been printing the early odds in the race program since 1949, and never has a favorite had such long odds.

So as I wander around the barns on the back side of Churchill Downs at dawn Thursday morning, I’m not the only one who’s looking for information, though I may be starting from the greatest position of ignorance. With such a wide-open field — 20 horses, six or eight more than the maximum allowed in most races in America — and no colt having established himself as dominant in the prep races, reporters are looking for angles and horse players are looking for clues.

“When you have 20 horses, you never know,” trainer Bob Baffert tells a gaggle of scribblers. “It mixes it all up.”

Baffert has two horses entered: War Emblem, at 20-1, and Danthebluegrassman, a 50-1 shot who finished last in the Santa Anita Derby and whose last-minute entry Wednesday ruffled some feathers in the camp of Windward Passage, who was bumped. When more than 20 horses are entered, the field is narrowed down to the 20 with the most earnings in graded stakes races. Windward Passage was 21st. His owners, some of whom had flown here from California for Wednesday’s post-position draw, didn’t find out he wouldn’t be racing until five minutes before the draw began.

Baffert defends the late announcement, which followed weeklong speculation that the horse would be withdrawn, to reporters: “All I read about is all these horses are so bad,” he says, “and that doesn’t do the owners any good, so don’t talk about it. All they [the media] see is, they look for the bad things in a horse. They don’t see maybe he didn’t get a chance to run.” Baffert says Danthebluegrassman looked so good in workouts this week that he decided to “throw out” the Santa Anita Derby, which he says was just a bad day for the colt.

“If you owned this horse and you saw the way he worked, you’d want him in this race,” he says. “He’s doing good right now. Not last week, not next week. Right now. There’s 20 horses in the Derby. Anything can happen. Take a shot.”

Anything can happen. That kind of optimism, reminiscent of the everybody’s-tied-for-first pronouncements of baseball managers during spring training, is rampant during Derby week, as evidenced by these headlines culled from the top of the Thoroughbred Times Web site at a randomly chosen moment Tuesday afternoon: Day says inexperienced Buddha handling challenges “beautifully”; McCarron right on the money in Came Home workout; Proud Citizen sharp in early morning move; Saarland finishes well in first work over Churchill strip; Medaglia d’Oro turns in impressive morning drill.

Never is heard a discouraging word.

Meanwhile, over by the backside rail, most of Louisville’s radio and television stations are broadcasting live. Thomas Meeker, the president and CEO of Churchill Downs Inc., surveys the scene with me. “The backside is the great equalizer,” he says. “All these people” — perhaps 100 people other than those in the media are milling around, watching the horses, eating doughnuts, taking pictures — “I mean, you’ve got millionaires, billionaires, floating around. Princes, Arab sheiks.”

And actor and former University of Louisville linebacker Matt Battaglia, who’s making the rounds, talking up an annual party he co-promotes that benefits a local cancer center.

“It’s the best party in town Friday night,” he says, then lists the Hollywood not-quite royalty who will attend, including James Caviezel, Jerry O’Connell, Shannon Elizabeth, two of the lesser Backstreet Boys and just about every actress in Hollywood with three names: Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Rachael Leigh Cook, Melissa Joan Hart, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the whole bunch.

Battaglia’s nice when I tell him I’ve never heard of him (“That’s OK, I’m not a household name yet — I’m the only face I don’t know”), so I’ll tell you that he’s got a Steven Seagal movie coming up called “Half Past Dead,” and maybe he’ll get famous and let me come to his party next year so I can meet Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Louisa May Alcott.

I ask him what makes the Derby special. “I think it’s the Southern tradition, the hospitality, the horse races, the mint juleps,” he says. “I think for the celebrities that have never been here, they experience a different part of culture and Americana they haven’t seen before. But when it’s all said and done, they remember the horse races, the excitement. And the mint juleps.”

He’s on to something with that Americana business. I’ve never been here before and have spent almost no time around tracks, but somehow everything looks familiar. Ask the average non-racing fan on the street — a guy like me — what Churchill Downs looks like and he’ll shrug his shoulders. Show him a picture of those twin spires poking out of the grandstand and without even knowing how he knows, he’ll recognize the place. It’s one of those American snapshots, not in the short slide show with the Statue of Liberty and the Golden Gate Bridge and Mount Rushmore, but sure to be there if the show goes on long enough to include the Alamo, the “Hollywood” sign and Bourbon Street.

It’s easy to get caught up in the whole atmosphere. The horses grunting and snorting as they jog the backstretch in the morning shadows under exercise riders in blue jeans standing in the stirrups, a crop bobbing from one back pocket. Grooms washing the horses down with soapy sponges and garden hoses, the beasts haughtily enduring the pampering, tourists and photographers and friends observing the process carefully, telling themselves that this or that little tic or shiver is a clue to how the horse will run on Saturday.

I come across two horses getting their baths at Barn 43. The Derby barn list says 43 is home to Saarland and Medaglia d’Oro. I ask a groom if that’s who these horses are, and he says the horse he’s washing is called Trip, but the other is Saarland, at 15-1 the pick of Salon’s art director and resident horse player, Bob Watts, who like many others believes that a recent throat procedure should help the colt’s breathing and, therefore, stamina.

Over the next five minutes I become an expert, a regular horseman, as four different people come up and ask me who the horse with the gold-and-purple blanket is. “That’s Saarland,” I say. Who doesn’t know that?

Stamina is a big deal at the Kentucky Derby. At a mile and a quarter, it’s longer than any other race a 3-year-old has run. Touts watch the horses in prep races to try to guess which will handle the distance. A closer who was gaining at the end of a mile race but finished fourth might be a better bet than the sprinter who beat him but might not have if the race had gone another two furlongs.

And then there’s the horse who finished ninth. That’s where It’sallinthechase ended up in the Arkansas Derby, though he also finished third in two Derby preps, the Lecomte and the Louisiana Derby. As Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Pat Forde put it Thursday, “At odds of 4 million to 1, he’d still be an underlay.”

But he’s 18th on the list with $117,000 in graded stakes earnings, and by God, he’s here, and so is his trainer, Wilson Brown, a former rodeo cowboy from Oklahoma who’s drinking in his first Derby like it’s his last mint julep.

“Here I am from a little ol’ town — Jones, Okla., population 3,000 — and here I am at the Derby,” he says, noting he’s never even been here as a spectator, though he watches the race on TV every year. “This is the biggest race in the world. A fellow like me, nobody can take it away. I started a horse in the Kentucky Derby. This horse race right here is the pinnacle in this business. Just walking up here and seeing those twin spires — I’ve been seeing them all my life on TV, in pictures, you know. And I’m here. I mean, it’s quite a show!”

Brown’s 10-gallon hat is as unusual here as a lady’s fancy Derby Day hat would be at the so-called bush tracks where he cut his training teeth. “A fellow from here, he asked me if I was raised in the thoroughbred business. I said no, I was raised in a cotton patch,” he says. “I went to 13 different schools. We followed the crop.”

Brown and It’sallinthechase are walking, drawling, running proof that this race is, if not a great equalizer, at least an exercise in opportunity. Owner Darwin Olson, also a Derby first-timer, bought It’sallinthechase for $27,000, a lot of money in your world and mine, but a pittance in the world of thoroughbred horses, where seven figures is a more common price than five.

“That’s the great thing about this race,” Brown says. “If you win your graded stakes, you’re in. It don’t matter if you paid two and a half million for the horse or $27,000. When you’re raised as poor as me, that’s something. You pay $27,000 and you get to run for a million.”

As I let Brown go — he tells me I’m unusual in that most of the reporters he’s been talking to have approached him 10 at a time — a punishing thunderstorm unloads on the Downs. I decide I’ve learned enough and head for the gate. My pick to win is Came Home, a 5-1 shot, because he won the Santa Anita Derby, the biggest race in my home state, and also because he has four letters in his first name, same as me. This isn’t a science, you know.

But I think I’ll put $2 down on It’sallinthchase at 50-1. (Thoroughbred Times headline: “Experience could be the payoff for It’sallinthechase.”) Anything can happen, after all, and wouldn’t that be a show!

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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