LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Derby fever has no limits, no boundaries. Randomness affects all, even Mother Nature.
Today, with a 70 percent chance of rain and a crowd of more than 150,000, the Class of 2006 parades to the post for the Kentucky Derby. Not all 37,939 foals born in 2006 could make it. Twenty are in the field. Only one will be remembered forever at historic Churchill Downs.
Already, the 135th edition has been unpredictable. Eleven challengers dropped out, mainly for physical reasons, creating the facade of a mall full of kiosks with half the anchor stores missing. The top contenders — I Want Revenge, Pioneerof the Nile, Dunkirk and Friesan Fire — are no higher than 5-1 on the morning line; the other 16 go from 15-1 and upward.
The dirt vs. synthetic issue adds to the intrigue. Fourteen starters have run on artificial surfaces, including Pioneerof the Nile making his dirt debut. Not one 3-year-old has traveled 1¼ miles. And with a racing strip that is likely to be wet, only five have left the gates on off-tracks. Two won: Friesan Fire and Desert Party, one of Dubai's two colts.
"You make the morning line based on the percentages," Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia said. "I have the top four horses with 79 percent of the line and the bottom 16 making up 47 percent, which comes out to 126 (percent). The top four horses in this race, I think, will probably take the bulk of the (wagering) money."
Four-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher, who has as many victories in the Run for the Roses as Derby rookies Thomas McCarthy (General Quarters) and Derek Ryan (Musket Man), said at a midweek function that Nowhere to Hide, one of his three starters and part of a record Tampa Bay Downs quintet in the field, would set the early pace.
"If he wants to be in front, more power," said Friesan Fire trainer Larry Jones, who has saddled the previous two Kentucky Derby runnersup with the ill-starred Eight Belles and Hard Spun. "Maybe that way he'll show us where the turns are coming up; we'll draft a little bit. It doesn't look like this field is loaded with speed. We're going to be close. Todd's horse is fast; he may drag two or three along with him. But as far as anybody just carrying this thing along in 45 (seconds) and change (for first half-mile) or pulled a 46-flat like Hard Spun did (in 2007), it would be very rare if that happens."
Ryan agrees. "Join in the Dance is definitely going to be in the lead," he said. "Friesan Fire is going to be close, and Regal Ransom is the other front-runner. The first quarter will definitely be 23 (seconds) and change. The puzzler will be what happens after that. The key part is getting in front at the wire."
WinStar Farm president Doug Cauthen, who has three starters in Advice, Hold Me Back and Mr. Hot Stuff, said horses that start on the inside and outside face challenges.
"The first turn is critical," Cauthen said. "With 20 horses and all that crowd screaming, there's a landslide to the rail. If you're there and don't have enough speed to hold your position, you just get pinched back.
"Instead of being 6 or 7 lengths off the lead, you're 14 off. The auxiliary gate (posts 15 through 20) is that much farther out. Big Brown proved you can do it (in 2008), but he was going for the lead, because he'd never had a lot of dirt in his face. A little more happens in the Derby; it's a little rougher."