Until it was time for the horses to leave the paddock and head for the track, the day of the 136th Kentucky Derby was such a dreary affair that YUM! Brands, the corporation that has leeched its name onto the world’s most coveted horse race, should have offered everyone a refund or, at least, a coupon for a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
It was so wet and gloomy in Louisville that all those women with Derby hats roughly the size of Rhode Island were selling space underneath them. O.K., that’s an exaggeration. But it’s true that even though the mint juleps were more watered down than usual, they were still selling for $10 a pop. Amazingly, the track did not charge admission to the restrooms, although surely that’s coming.
A purist liked to think that the gods of racing were angry with the suits who run Churchill Downs, that soulless collection of lawyers, bankers, and accountants who have no regard for tradition, history, or romance. Maybe the gods were showing their displease at having the twin spires dwarfed on both sides by luxury suites or by the erection of light standards all around the hallowed oval.
Surely they were angry that Churchill Downs found tickets for all sorts of faux “celebrities,” but had none for Ronnie Franklin, who rode Spectacular Bid to victory in the 1979, or Jorge Velasquez, who finished second aboard Alydar in 1978 before winning with Pleasant Colony in 1981.
Heck, there was even a race on the Derby Day card named in honor of Pleasant Colony. But instead of being treated like a king and asked to present the trophy, Velasquez spent the day watching the races on TV at his hotel because Churchill couldn’t come up with a ticket for him.
But about 45 minutes before post time for the Derby, just when it seemed as if the Derby was ready to sink under the weight of all the price-gouging, commercialism, and all-around tastelessness the rain stopped falling and everything faded into insignificance except for the horses, the people who nurture them, and their rendezvous with destiny.
Unlike what has come to surround it, the Derby itself remains as real as it was in 1875, when Aristides won the roses after his more ballyhooed stablemate Chesapeake had faltered. No corporate suit or TV producer can script what happens after the horses go on the track. It’s all up to the gods of racing and their whims on that particular day, at that particular time.
As the horses splashed around the track in their final warmups, the infield toteboard revealed that this, indeed, was the most wideopen in Derby history. The favored Lookin at Lucky, trained by threetime Derby winner Bob Baffert, went off at $6.30 to $1, making him the highest-price favorite in Derby history. But the longest shot on the board was only $31.60 to $1. Everybody was getting played, in other words, because the bettors around the world simply had no clue.
The sloppy track didn’t seem to change many bettors’ minds, but it was a grave matter of concern to nervous racing officials at a time when the sport is still undecided about the merits of surfaces made by God or those made by man. A horrible accident in the Derby would have increased the pressure for all tracks to install artificial surfaces even though the evidence is mounting that dirt still may be the best way to go.
To its credit, Churchill has stayed with dirt largely because veteran track superintendent Butch Lehr, the best in his business, is staunchly opposed to artificial surfaces. He always has argued that well-maintained dirt tracks are safer and easier for the horses. It’s too bad he has no influence at Keeneland, which should not be allowed to use the slogan, “Racing As It Was Meant to Be,” until it dumps its artificial track and goes back to the stuff made by God.
After saddling his four horses, mega-trainer Todd Pletcher left the paddock and went into the horseman’s lounge just behind it so he could watch the Derby on TV away from the prying eyes of the crowd and the TV cameras. Only a week earlier, Pletcher had sadly announced that he was taking Eskenderyea, the overwhelming Derby favorite, out of the race because of a leg injury.
Now he knew that unless one of his second-stringers could get it done — just as Aristides had picked up Chesapeake in 1875 — he would have to spend another year of gracefully answering questions about why he couldn’t win the Derby. (He was 0-for-24 heading into the race.) To his credit, Pletcher never lashed back at his interrogators and critics.
So much is bet on the Derby that nobody noticed when Glen Fullerton of Houston bet $100,000 on Pletcher’s Super Saver to win. He had beaten thousands of other contestants in a CNB C promotion. The only stipulation was that he had to bet the entire $100,000 on one horse to win — no exactas, trifectas, superfectas, or multiple horses.
One reason Fullerton bet on Super Saver was the same reason the crowd knocked him down from 15-to-1 in the morning line to $8 at post time — jockey Calvin Borel, who has replaced the retired Pat Day as the king of Kentucky’s jockey colony.
Still, Borel was attempting to do something no rider had done in 136 years — win the Derby for a third time in four years. In addition, he was trying to become only the fourth rider in Derby history — and the first since Eddie Delahoussaye in 1982 and ’83 — to win the roses back-to-back.
In both his previous Derby wins — aboard Street Sense in 2007 and Mine That Bird last year — Borel came through on the rail to win. He owns the rail at Churchill Downs to such a degree that his fans call him “Bo-rail.” Or, to look at it another way, Borel was a “super saver,” always saving ground on the rail, long before there was a horse by that name. Amazingly, although everybody knows what he likes to do, nobody has figured out how to keep Bo off the rail when he wants to be there.
A 43-year-old native of Martin Parish, La., Borel is so down-to-earth and unpretentious that he’s at home wherever he goes. After winning on Street Sense, he put on a tux and met Queen Elizabeth at the White House. After winning on Mine That Bird, he made jubilant appearances on Leno and Letterman. After winning on Super Saver, who knows where he might show up? Could “Dancing With The Stars” be a possibility?
But even stardom hasn’t changed Borel. He’s still most comfortable on the backstretch, hanging around with racetrackers. His grammar isn’t good because he’s not well-educated, but he more than compensates by being earnest and genuine and polite and modest and grateful. The suits who run racing — and who have alienated fans everywhere with their arrogance and incompetence — would do well to begin modeling themselves after Calvin Borel.
So now it’s post time and all is forgotten except the hardest mile and a quarter in sports. With 20 horses in the field, peril always looms at the start, down the stretch for the first time, and into the first turn. The jockeying for positions is so fierce that every year good horses are taken out of contention even before they get a chance to run.
So it was this year with Lookin at Lucky, who broke from the No. 1 post position on the rail and immediately got shut off by horses veering over on him. He got banged around so much that he showed a lot of class by hanging on to finish sixth.
Instead of chasing a killer early pace set by Baff ert second-stringer Conveyance, Borel tucked in Super Saver on the rail — where else? — and was content to stay in sixth place until the turn for home, when Borel began asking him to run. Second by a head at the top of the stretch, Borel wheeled his horse around the pace-setting Noble’s Promise inside the quarter mile and drew off to a clear lead that he held to the wire.
In the last 16th, Ice Box came flying down the center of the track to give the crowd (announced at 155,804) a cheap thrill. But Borel, looking over his right shoulder, knew it was too late for the colt trained by two-time Derby winner Nick Zito. He already had Super Saver under a tight hold and simply galloped to the wire.
The winning margin was a solid 2 ½ lengths and the time was a pedestrian 2:04 4/5. But those numbers are deceiving. After drawing clear of the field, Borel never pushed Super Saver. No doubt he already was looking ahead to the Preakness two weeks hence in Baltimore. Or, as he told NBC announcer Donna Barton Brothers as she interviewed him on the way to the winner’s circle, “I think I’ve got a Triple Crown winner this year.”
While Ice Box easily was the best of the rest, kudos also went to trainer Dale Romans, who Paddy O’Prado seemed to have second locked up until Ice Box came rolling past him. Both Make Music for Me and Noble’s Promise, who finished fourth and fifth, respectively, also ran better than expected.
Of Pletcher’s other entrants, Mission Impazible finished 9th, the filly Devil May Care 10th, and Discreetly Mine 13th. He’s now 1-for-28, and he will not mind answering questions about that, thank you very much.
The biggest disappointments were Santa Anita Derby winner Sidney’s Candy, who never was in contention and finished 17th, and the highly regarded Awesome Act, who beat only Backtalk and came in some 70 lengths behind the winner.
A son of Maria’s Mon (also the sire of 2001 Derby winner Monarchos) out of the A.P. Indy mare Supercharger, Super Saver was bred in Kentucky by WinStar Farm LLC. Although the farm is co-owned by Bill Casner and Kenny Troutt, they gave credit racing manager Elliott Walden and farm president Doug Cauthen for planning the breeding of Super Saver.
Walden is a former trainer with two Derby seconds to his credit (Victory Gallop in 1998 and Menifee in ’99), and Cauthen is the brother of Steve Cauthen, who was aboard Affirmed when he became racing’s 11th — and most recent — Triple Crown winner in 1978.
Although the going was rough as usual, all 20 horses escaped injury, a tribute to Lehr’s crew and the Churchill racing surface. The race was a solid endorsement for dirt tracks, in other words, and so was Super Saver’s victory. Since the advent of artificial surfaces at Keeneland and in California, horses prepping at those tracks haven’t run well in the Derby. Super Saver’s Derby preps were on the dirt track at Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Ark.
All we can do is thank Calvin Borel and Super Saver for reminding us that despite all the commercialism and price-gouging, all the self-promoting and hard-selling, the Derby still is magic once the horses come on the track and find themselves face-to-face with history. Some things are not, and never will be, for sale.
Billy Reed is a former sports editor for The
Courier-Journal in Louisville and The Lexington
Herald-Leader. He has also worked as a senior
writer for Sports Illustrated magazine.