LOUISVILLE, Ky. — When the gates open this evening on the 134th running of the Kentucky Derby, five front-running horses, all stuck in outside posts, will angle sideways and race each other to the rail. Big Brown, the morning line favorite in the No. 20 post, must run the farthest and fastest of them all if he is to gain that all-important position on the rail.
Late-afternoon showers Friday made for a soggy Kentucky Oaks day, but the forecast calls for sun today and this all-important sprint in the beginning of the race should take place on a dry track.
"Everyone talks about the last quarter-mile of the Derby, but the race is really won in the first quarter-mile," said Big Brown's jockey, Kent Desormeaux, a two-time Derby winner. "There's dozens of snap decisions to make between the gate and the first turn. If I make a mistake on the run to the turn, my chances of winning end there."
This initial mad dash also will go a long way in determining the prospects of the four other need-the-lead horses inside Big Brown, as well as the pace for what then becomes a grueling quarter of a mile. Immediately inside Big Brown are Gayego, Recapturetheglory and Cowboy Cal, each of whom led virtually every step of the way to win the Arkansas and Illinois Derbys and Bluegrass Stakes.
Bob Black Jack, perhaps the fastest of them all, might have the first chance to hit the rail because he breaks from the No. 13 hole. Bob Black Jack holds the world record for six furlongs, and he barely got caught at the wire in the Santa Anita Derby by Colonel John.
"It's going to be interesting," said Bob Black Jack's trainer James Kasparoff. "You'd like to think your colt can overcome a little trouble, but in reality if we're not quick and relaxed out of the gate, it's not going to go well for us."
There is little doubt, however, that all eyes will be watching for Big Brown.
In the Florida Derby, Desormeaux hustled his big bay colt away from the farthest post — No. 12 — got to the rail in an instant and never looked back en route to a five-length victory. There, however, he had 50 feet to get to the first turn; here, at Churchill, he has five-sixteenths of a mile. Desormeaux said he was not only satisfied with the No. 20 post but believed it offered him more choices in putting Big Brown through his gears.
While Big Brown has looked brilliant winning all three of his lifetime races, he must show he can overcome his lack of seasoning before he is draped with roses in the Churchill Downs winners' circle. Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas said Big Brown's weaknesses (or strengths) will be exposed that first eighth of a mile.
"The colt has never had dirt kicked in his face, or heard more than 100,000 screaming at him, or gotten bounced around in a crowd," said Lukas, who has won four Derbys. "This is one heck of a place to have to learn those lessons, and he will learn them here. But if he can overcome all that, he is the real deal."