1. Archive

Sure, and Dewey defeated Truman

Captain Bodgit. Remember him? Probably not. Near-missers in presidential elections and beaten favorites in the Kentucky Derby can be painfully forgettable. Where are you, Mike Dukakis (1988) and Holy Bull (1994)?

A year ago, Captain Bodgit was the 3-to-1 sweetheart of Churchill Downs bettors, but he finished a stride behind Silver Charm, becoming the 19th consecutive Derby favorite to not win.

It's that time again. May's first Saturday. At 5:27 in the Louisville afternoon, as a mint julep-fueled crowd of 140,000 peaks its frenzy, Indian Charlie will be the toteboard ruler as 15 colts bolt away in the 124th Kentucky Derby.

Once more, we wonder, is this the year a favorite succeeds for the first time since Spectacular Bid in 1979? Or is Indian Charlie to become just another overpriced also-ran, destined for a quick fade to history's backstage, not unlike Easy Goer (1989) and George McGovern (1972)?

Until the Derby sees another Seattle Slew (1977) or Majestic Prince (1969) or Whirlaway (1941), a front-runner at wagering windows who wins, let's play a little $2 game. Call it "Beat the Favorite!"

I'm going with Favorite Trick, a 3-year-old trained by Bill Mott and ridden by Pat Day. But shouldn't we predict 1-2-3 in our "Beat the Favorite!" derby? My guess for runner-up is Cape Town, followed by Real Quiet. I can't remember if I've picked a winner since Spectacular Bid.

"Pick whatever colt you like," said Bob Baffert, who trains Indian Charlie. "To my eyes, my favored colt has a unique level of athletic ability and grace, like a Michael Jordan with four legs."

Speaking of a holy Bull.

We'll see. Maybe Baffert is right, that Indian Charlie will overcome a 19-year Derby curse, becoming a favorite who delivers. Becoming a winner like Lyndon Johnson (1964) and Dwight Eisenhower (1952). Refusing to be just another Churchill Downs money darling to emulate Walter Mondale (1984).

All week, Louisville has been drenched by rain. Horses have been slopping through mud. But the Downs has a track that recovers quickly. A touch of Saturday sunshine and the dirt should be firm, maybe even fast.

"Personally, we wouldn't mind seeing further downpours," Mott, also trainer of long-shot Rock and Roll, said. "My horse has good mud foot. A less-than-perfect track increases his chances."

Rock and Roll is owned by Jenny Craig, the diet diva, and a California pal, Madeleine Paulson. Blessed with considerable bankrolls, they decided six weeks ago that owning a Derby horse would be a kick. Craig has been to Churchill Downs before as an owner.

D. Wayne Lukas, the crusty California trainer, likened the 11th-hour plunge by Craig/Paulson to a shopping binge on Rodeo Drive, the Los Angeles street famed for glitter if not bargains. Jenny is steamed.

"Wayne Lukas owes Bill Mott an apology," Craig said. "If he has an ounce of class, Lukas will say he's sorry. That line about Rodeo Drive was a terribly cheap shot."

Did she say cheap?

Nothing attracts a more intriguing forum than a Kentucky Derby. Jack Nicholson supposedly will temporarily vacate the Los Angeles Lakers' front row, showing up in Louisville to cheer Jenny Craig's horse.

Tens of thousands of men and women will dress fancy, as if for a wedding. You will see hats fit for any Easter parade. For a showoff, there's no place like Churchill Downs as May blossoms.

In the Downs infield, near the track's first two turns, there will be college kids with a propensity to be casual, well-oiled and loud. Seven flights up in Churchill's grandstand will be "Millionaires Row," loaded with many of the Derby's best-dressed, fattest-financed patrons.

Concessionaires will sell 100,000 mint juleps, a potent if not terribly tasty mixture of Kentucky bourbon, sugar, water and mint. Mint juleps became a tradition as Aristides was winning the inaugural Derby in 1875. That sunny afternoon, race founder Col. M. Lewis Clark impressed guests by serving the drink in sterling silver cups.

Today, as the 3-year-old Derby horses stroll on the track 10 minutes before post time, the Churchill Downs multitude will rise with juleps to sing, while some even weep, as the University of Louisville band plays My Old Kentucky Home.

"I'll probably shed a tear," said Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino, majority owner of Halory Hunter, the likely No. 2 betting choice behind Indian Charlie. "Having been raised in New York, there were quick lessons learned when I became University of Kentucky coach in 1989. First, there was the unparalleled interest in Wildcats basketball; then there was the Kentucky Derby.

"UK hoops dominates millions of minds in this state for maybe 51 weeks a year. But the first of May is reserved for the Derby. I feel quite undeserving of getting to experience not one but two enormous Kentucky thrills, winning a national championship (1996) with the Wildcats and now having a horse in the Run for the Roses."

So now we're ready. Fifteen elegant animals. Derby 124. One favorite. Two minutes or thereabouts after the great chase begins, we'll know if Indian Charlie is to score like a Secretariat (1973) or a John F. Kennedy (1960). Or is the horse doomed to become one of history's almost-made-its, like Alydar (1978) and Thomas Dewey (1948)?