The 2017 Kentucky Derby: AKA, This One Is Kind of Weird

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It’s been kind of a yo-yo year. Reigning 2 year old champ Classic Empire threw some unexpected tantrums. Irish War Cry randomly forgot how to run. California kind of phoned it in when it came to producing the cream of the Derby crop this year. McCraken was on the verge of superstardom, then lost to a horse named after a medical procedure acronym.

There are a lot of years when the best plan for placing Derby best is to close your eyes and point. This one isn’t quite as open ended as that, but the horses who are at the top of the ladder have a lot of questions to go with their answers,

1 – Lookin at Lee

He does his best running late, which will suit him well here, but he has trouble finding the winner’s circle. Drawing the dreaded one-hole won’t help him – he’ll likely be trapped down in on the rail and have trouble finding a clear path to get in gear. Fun fact: his daddy, Looking at Lucky, suffered the same fate coming out of the #1 post in 2010

2 – Thunder Snow

He has one of the coolest names in the field, is well traveled and has run farther than anyone in the field (UAE Derby is 1 3/16 miles). However we’re still waiting for a Goldolphin horse to win the Kentucky Derby after prepping in Dubai. Throw in the #2 post, which actually has a bigger drought than the 1-hole when it comes to producing a Derby winner, and I’m inclined to leave him out of my wagers.

3 – Fast and Accurate

His dirt resume is less than impressive, and the Spiral Stakes on Polytrack is not the greatest of Derby preps. This horse is a front runner and his connections have indicated they want the lead, and he’ll need a clean break to get it. I don’t see him being a threat to hit the board.

4 – Untrapped

He hit the board in the Rebel and Risen Star this spring, but was a non-threatening 5th in the Arkansas Derby. His lone win is a 6f maiden race. He’ll be a huge longshot, but I think there are smarter plays.

5 – Always Dreaming

Every year there is a flashy, brilliant Todd Pletcher horse. Every year that horse looks good on paper, but I never have a good gut feeling about it. Same goes for Always Dreaming, even though he won the Florida Derby in style. It’s his lone stakes attempt, making the Derby a rather big leap. He’s been training with draw reins in the morning because he’s been too aggressive, which is not really what you want to see going into this race. But he has top jock John Velasquez in the saddle and is one of the few horses this year who has shown consistency. He will likely be one of the top 3 betting choices. Overlook him at your peril, though I will probably overlook him.

6 – State of Honor

You will likely see this horse gunning his way to the lead and setting the pace. He’s run second and third all spring, most recently second to Always Dreaming in the Florida Derby, which makes him consistent if not remarkable. His pedigree and performance suggests a preference for distances closer to a mile. The likelihood of him getting the lead and keeping it for a 1 ¼ seems slim. But if he does indeed set the pace, he could have a lot to say about the outcome.

7 – Girvin

Girvin boasts wins in the Louisiana Derby and Risen Star Stakes, making him one of the few horses in the race this year with more than 1 graded stakes win as a 3 year old. However, last week it was announced he’s battling another quarter crack. My previous line of work makes me very wary of horses with foot problems. Patching quarter cracks is exactly that – a patch, not a fix for the mechanics that caused the problem in the first place. This is also his second crack – in a second hoof – since January, which tells me he’s running on at least 2 flat tires and possibly three. Not to say that he can’t still fire off a big effort – his latest work at Keeneland was sharp – but the issue has disrupted his training schedule and forced him to do some of his exercise in the KESMARC swimming pool to maintain fitness (insider tip: water is not good for poor quality feet). I’ll pass on him.

8 – Hence

Mine That Bird showed everyone in 2009 that the Sunland Derby wasn’t just for scrubs. Hence is the winner of that race this year, and the foes he vanquished include Conquest Mo Money, who then went on to to run second to Classic Empire in the Arkansas Derby. Irap, who finished 4th, came back to win the Bluegrass over McCracken, Practical Joke, Tapwrit and J Boys Echo. Therefore, his resume is actually a lot stronger than you might think at first glance. Trainer Steve Asmussen’s win resume in short reads: Every Race But the Kentucky Derby, so he’s got to win it sometime, right? He’ll need to get clear running room for a stretch drive (he’s a closer), but if he gets it, watch out. Just be forewarned. If you think he’s a great wise guy horse, you’re not the only one.

9 – Irap

The only thing sillier about this horse’s name is how he got the name. America’s Best Racing reported that the van driver misread his papers after he was sent out for Interluekin-1 Receptor Antagonist Protein (IRAP) treatments and thought it was the horse’s name. Owner Paul Reddam was amused enough to make that his name, so here we are. His win in the Bluegrass was a total shocker, and could be a fluke. After all, it was his first win in 7 tries. But the Sunland Derby suggests he’s been running in good company, so who knows? Maybe he’s coming into form at a rather clandestine moment.

10 – Gunnevera

You don’t get much more consistent than Gunnevera, who hasn’t run worse than third in three graded stakes appearances this year. As with all closers, he needs a fast pace and a clean run to get there in the end, which is always a challenge when you’ve got a race guaranteed to cause traffic jams. However he’s held his own against the likes of Irish War Cry, Practical Joke and Classic Empire, though the latter was admittedly not himself in the Holy Bull, which means he can run with the best horses in the field. If he gets his trip, look for him in the lane.

11 – Battle of Midway

The West Coast usually churns out Derby horses in droves, but this year it hasn’t really produced a lot of standouts. Battle of Midway was second in the Santa Anita Derby after setting the pace, and his pedigree suggests he can carry his speed over the distance. Sounds like Jerry Hollendofer may be aiming for more of a stalking trip in the Derby. If you’re looking for a longshot he will probably be overlooked, and I have certainly heard worse ideas.

12 – Sonneteer

Hard to get excited about a horse who has never won a race, especially when it’s not from lack of trying. Sonneteer is 0 for 10, and despite having 3 time Kentucky Derby winner Kent Desormeaux in the irons, this horse is one of those worse ideas I just mentioned above.

13 – J Boys Echo

His big win this year was in the Gotham, though I can’t name a single horse that he beat. Most recently he ran 4th in the Bluegrass. Don’t really see him being a factor.

14 – Classic Empire

Last year’s 2 year old champ has been a bit of a wild card this year, after an abscess and led to a subpar performance in the Holy Bull and his quirky antics resulted in disruption to his training schedule. However his solid win in the Arkansas Derby seems to have silenced most of the critics. Two year old champs have done will in the Derby as of late (they’re 2 for 2 in the last two runnings), and this horse is certainly capable of adding to that tally. The questions is whether his unconventional spring has put him at a disadvantage. The Derby is definitely not a race where you want hiccups in your schedule. But of the favorites in the race, this is the one I’m sticking with.

15 – McCraken

Had he won the Bluegrass, McCraken would be the overwhelming Derby favorite. He’s already won 3 races at Churchill Downs, including the Kentucky Jockey Stakes as a 2 year old, and he’s got loads of talent. His loss at Keeneland may actually help him, all with the benefit of a higher price at the windows. Jump off his bandwagon at your peril.

16 – Tapwrit

His clunker in the Bluegrass was disappointing after a stellar win in the Tampa Bay Derby. So which Tapwrit will we get Saturday? If it’s the same horse we saw in the Bluegrass, not a lot. But if it’s the horse that ran away from State of Honor and was gaining on McCraken in the Sam F Davis, you could be cashing in a nice ticket. Word on the street is he is training well, so if you want another wise guy horse who isn’t as obvious of a wise guy horse, Tapwrit might be it. Plus, he’s grey!

17 – Irish War Cry

After bursting onto the scene with a decisive win in the Holy Bull, he ran an inexplicably awful 7th in the Fountain of Youth before getting back to business with another dominating win in the Wood Memorial. If you look at everything but the Fountain of Youth, he’s 4/4 with a slew of triple digit Beyer speed figures and a general superstar. I don’t see a lot of reason to hold that race in Florida against him. He’ll be one of the favorites and deservedly so.

18 – Gormley

Gormely has an adorable face, the connections of Zenyatta and the jockey of back-to-back Derby winners, and is a proven multiple grade 1 winner. But. He’s not the most consistent kiddo in the race. He followed up his win in the FrontRunner with a clunker in the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile. His win in Shame was followed by a 4th in the San Felipe. So if he holds to his pattern, a win in the Santa Anita Derby isn’t necessarily going to yield success in the Derby. Add that to the criticism that the SA Derby was slow, and it’s harder to make a strong case for him. But his face is so darned cute.

19 – Practical Joke

He’s never been worse than third and has shown up to every dance. As a 2 year old he bagged two grade 1 wins in the Champagne and Hopeful. This year he’s run second in both of his prep races. The biggest question he faces is the Derby 1 ¼; his pedigree suggests that’s going to be more than he wants. But given how solid this horse is, it’s hard to bet against him.

20 – Patch

Patch will be the sentimental pick of the field, given his story (having only one eye and all). And while he has a lot of talent, the Derby will be only his 4th race, and his only stakes appearance was a game second in the Louisiana Derby to Girvin. I’m not as down on the outside post as some (see this great article breaking down Derby post positions by the numbers), but this is going to be a lot to ask of him, and not because he’s only got one eye. Considering how popular he’ll be at the window he’ll probably be a bit of an underlay. Maybe not the smartest bet in the field, but also not the dumbest (see #12).

The Picks:

  • Classic Empire
  • McCraken
  • Irish War Cry
  • Practical Joke
  • Patch. (What? I’m sentimental.)

Also, I will be yelling louder than anyone if Gormley pulls it off. Because seriously, that face.

Old Heroes at Old Friends: How One Georgetown Farm is Giving Racing’s Champions a Second Chance

In Georgetown, Kentucky, on Paynes Depot Road, there is a farm that from the first glance might not look out of the ordinary. If anything, it’s easy to pass over. It lacks the perfectly manicured fences and barns that appear more akin to palaces than a place that puts a roof over a horse’s head. The occupants of its paddocks are not sleek, spotless stallions raking in millions in stud fees. They’re horses – with long, shaggy fur that’s covered in mud, whiskers that curl at the ends and manes that are long and tangled.

But don’t let that fool you.

Game On Dude at Old Friends

Game On Dude, winner of over $6 million on the racetrack, now calls Old Friends home.

The dark bay in one paddock won the Belmont stakes a few years back. That pushy chestnut is an undefeated stakes horse from New Mexico, and the blood bay gelding he’s bossing around is a Breeder’s Cup winner.

Most of them are aged gentlemen, with gracefully swayed backs and heads still head high, especially if you have a peppermint. But some of them, like the lean, well-muscled kid in a paddock not far from the road, still remembers the call to the post.

By the way. That lanky kid won the Santa Anita Handicap three times and bankrolled over six million dollars.

But at Old Friends, he just gets to be a horse.

In 1986, the great Ferdinand won the Kentucky Derby, making famed jockey Bill Shoemaker, the same man who rode Swaps to victory in 1955, the oldest man to win the roses. The following year he defeated the great Alysheba in a Breeder’s Cup Classic showdown between two Derby winners that lives on in memory as one of the greatest races ever run. When he was retired in 1989, he was sent to Claiborne Farm to live out the rest of the fairytale. A life of luxury in one of the most fabled farms in the Bluegrass – the life a hero like Ferdinand, America’s horse, deserved.

But it didn’t go as planned. In 1994, after a lackluster career at stud, he was sold to Japanese interests in hopes that he might have more success overseas. He didn’t. When his career didn’t pan out in Hokkaido, he was sold to another farm. According to Barbara Bayer, who years later tried to track down the legendary stallion and published her story in the Blood-Horse back in 2003, that farm attempted to place him in a new home, failed, and eventually sold him to a horse trader. Bayer reported that for reasons unknown, his Japanese owners never attempted to contact his former connections in America. It gets murky from there. He got passed from place to place. The story changed the more she pressed. Until, at last, she learned that sometime in 2002, the great Ferdinand had been sent to a slaughterhouse.

The racing world was stunned. Ferdinand, the champion who had thrilled millions, won two of the most prestigious races in the world, and earned over 3 million dollars over the course of his careers, had died the death of the unwanted, his past accomplishments reduced to nothing as he spent his final moments alone, unloved, unheralded.

It was unthinkable. Horrific. Impossible.

But it was possible. Ferdinand had slipped through the cracks. The industry he gave so much to failed him, in the cruelest possible way. But it opened our eyes. What happened to Ferdinand would never happen again. We all said it. But one person didn’t just say it. He made it happen.

Michael Blowen opened Old Friends Farm in 2003, with the goal of rescuing our venerable heroes and giving them the retirement they deserve. It is a haven, a sanctuary, for the young and the old, and it’s open to the public. Here, their fans can walk up to the fence, scratch their ears, feed them peppermints. It’s a charity that runs off donations, and because of the generosity of racing fans they have now been able to rescue over 150 horses across the world, their most recent effort being Genuine Reward, the first son of Kentucky Derby winner Genuine Risk, who appeared on Craigslist for sale (in wonderful condition) for a fee of $500. He arrived at Old Friends just last week.

Silver Charm at Old Friends

1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Silver Charm surveys his new home at Old Friends

Other residents of this rescue turned tourist attraction include Sarava, who won the Belmont in 2002 to steal the Triple Crown from War Emblem, 1995 Kentucky Derby competitor Afternoon Deelites, the great gelding and California star Game On Dude, who won three Big ‘Caps, including the 2013 running, and a couple of Hollywood Gold Cups. Their most famous resident arrived a few months ago on a cold rainy day in December, far removed from that first Saturday in May when Silver Charm battled to the wire under the Twin Spires. He stole the paddock belonging to his fat furry counterpart, the miniature Little Silver Charm. In a few weeks however, he’ll have competition for the spotlight when 2002 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem returns stateside from Japan to give Sarava the side-eye.

The only downside of a place like Old Friends is that their residents don’t tend to be young. Since my last visit, Silver Charm’s arrival in December, they’ve had to say goodbye to two of their most beloved residents, the ancient but steadfast Ogygian, former broodmare sire of the year, who proudly lived to age 30, and the stunning Creator, called Mr. Sexy by some, who was one of the first residents to arrive at Old Friends in 2004. He was beloved by all when he passed away at the age of 29 early this year.

Creator at Old Friends

Creator, one of the beloved founding residents of Old Friends.

Despite the sadness of their passing, these horse epitomize the goals and the mission of Old Friends: these horses, who did so much for us on the racetrack, got to live out their lives in peace, loved by their handlers and adored by their fans.

Donate to Old Friends – View additional photos on Flickr

Wise Dan Back on the Worktab

The venerable Wise Dan is now officially back to work, breezing :48 1/5 on the Keeneland turf course on Friday, July 17th. He galloped out in 1:01 3/5 under Jen Patterson in his first work since being cleared to resume full training back on June 30th. Wise Dan has not raced since suffering a non-displaced fracture of his right front pastern last October.

More info about the work can be found at the Blood-Horse, who reports trainer Charles LoPresti hopes to run the two-time Horse of the Year twice at his home base of Keeneland this fall, in the Shadwell Turf Mile and Breeder’s Cup Mile.

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As a long time fan and follower of Wise Dan, it’s great to have the old man back. The 8 year old gelding has been a Keeneland fixture since winning the Phoenix (G3) in his first start there back in 2010.

Generation 12: How American Pharoah’s Triple Crown Has Impacted Post-1978 Racing Fans

American Pharoah at Santa Anita Park

American Pharoah parades at Santa Anita on Gold Cup day, June 27th

For those of us born in 1979 and beyond, talking about the Triple Crown has been a bit like visiting a museum. The history has already been written. The legends already stamped in stone, the statues already built and worshipped. Eleven names, eleven stories, have always been part of the fabric of horse racing. No more, no less. It has always been eleven. By the time we were born, even those latter names, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, were hallowed, represented by grainy footage and long faded cheers rather than flesh and blood, dirt kicked up by flying hooves. We never crowned them kings: as far as we’re concerned they were born kings, their legacy assured the moment they entered the world. We never had to wonder if a Bold Ruler colt could get a mile and a quarter. We never doubted that Affirmed could vanquish Alydar a third time. We’ve always known. It’s always been.

Because of that, for the post-1978 generations, or Generation 12 as we’ll call them: those who have lain in wait for the 12th Triple Crown champion to arrive, the Triple Crown has been more mythology than history, its winners the gods that would never come again to dwell amongst the living. Year after year we watched, waited, hoped, and twelve times in 37 years we came close. So close. But only close. In the back of our minds, perhaps we believed that the list of eleven names was never meant to be twelve. We would have to be content with the memories of others, wistfully imagining what it must have been like to see the 1973 Belmont with no knowledge of the spectacle about to be witnessed, wonder if we would ever share in the magic that is sport’s most difficult and elusive prize. What would it be like to add another name to that list? How do you measure a new name against the old? How do you look at a horse, who one day you scrutinized with a skeptic’s eye and a handicapper’s pencil, and the next suddenly place him among the company of immortals? We’ve never known. It’s never happened.

Now it has.

For “Generation 12”, American Pharoah’s has transcribed Triple Crown from myth to reality. The cheers, exultation and celebrations that have followed are ours. Our memories. Our experiences. We watched, we hoped, we laughed and we cried as he cruised under the wire at Belmont Park, willing participants in horse racing history rather than dutiful students of it. We’ve not only witnessed Pharoah’s coronation, but we now get to nurture his legacy as it grows. For us, this position is a unique one.

This is the first time we have been part of a Triple Crown when we do not know how the story ends. What will he do next? How will it define him? Where will he rank against those other eleven names? We don’t know yet, but we will be among the voices who ultimately decide, and that is a powerful responsibility we’ve been waiting to exercise for as long as 37 years.

But perhaps even more importantly, the phenomenon that is American Pharoah is something we can experience in ways we have never been able to with previous Triple Crown winners. In some regards, this makes him unique even for those lucky elders who aren’t witnessing their first rodeo. We live in an age with instant information, unprecedented social connections and intimate access that was unfathomable in the 1970s. Every workout. Every appearance. Even every nap is now available for us to consume on an international stage, and we do consume it, eagerly and greedily as we keep looking for more, making Pharoah a people’s horse in ways that no previous horse has ever been able to be. It’s no wonder he has captured the imagination of the entire racing spectrum; from grizzled veterans who speak in speed figures to the wonder-filled naïve who still can’t turn down a $2 win bet on a pretty grey, he has quickly become part of the fabric of our lives. We are keenly aware that he’s something to treasure and enjoy, because he won’t be here for long, and if there is one thing we know well, it’s that we might be waiting a long time to see this again.

So for Generation 12, this is the chance of a lifetime. The horse we have been waiting for. American Pharoah is ours, the twelfth name on an eleven name list that we’d all but lost faith would ever be added to. This horse has re-defined horse racing for us in ways that we will never forget, and will always be grateful for participating in. To the rest of the racing world, we are one of you now. We understand. And it’s wonderful.

Generation 13 starts now. And if the years get long and your hope runs short, take it from folks who have been there – never stop believing. It’ll be worth the wait.

For more photos from American’ Pharoah’s appearance at Santa Anita, visit Bourbon and Bluegrass on Tumblr.

Derby Day Indulgences

The staples of the Kentucky Derby are of course Derby Pie and mint juleps. But mint juleps aren’t exactly to everyone’s fancy. So how do you do as the natives do and consume an appropriate beverage that might be more to your tastes? Enter Ale-8-One, an exclusively Kentucky beverage that is beloved in the Bluegrass and almost completely unknown elsewhere in the world. The names comes from a play on the phrase ‘A late one,’ and the closest comparison I can come to is Ginger Ale. So to those of you who are not in Kentucky this weekend but still want to feel a little of My Old Kentucky Home, give this a whirl with a ginger ale instead of Ale-8. It just won’t be quite as sweet.

A Late Freeze Frozen Cocktail, recipe courtesy of 



6- 12 ounce bottles of Ale-8-One
3/4 cups Kentucky bourbon


Pour Ale-8-one in a sauce pan, bring to a boil. Cook until reduced by half, about 15- 20 minutes. Remove pan from burner and add bourbon. Once the liquid has cooled, transfer to freezer safe container and place in the freezer. When ready to serve, allow the mixture to thaw until slushy, then place in a blender to reincorporate. Serve in a Derby glass with a sprig of mint.

Makes 4-8 ounce servings.

Pair this fancy beverage with Derby Pie and you’re as Kentucky as Kentucky gets!

Happy Oaks Day!

Kentucky Derby 141 – The Breakdown

This time a year, a lot of friends and family call on me to tell them who’s going to win the Kentucky Derby, because I have a knack for convincing people I know something about it. I like to think of myself as the right blend of handicapping know-how and sentiment – so keep in mind that sometimes I admit to picking a horse because he’s pretty, so nyah. But I like to think I give the Derby pretty thorough consideration, so for what it’s worth, here’s how I see it.

The field for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby is deep and full of talent, to the point it’s tough to see a huge shocker walking away with the roses. American Pharoah and Dortmund are as legit as it gets, and there are easily half a dozen other horses that are tough to overlook when it comes to putting your money where your mouth is.

Below is my not-exactly unbiased and only occasionally professional breakdown of the field. At the bottom of the post are my picks. This year will be an unusual one for me, as I may be watching the race from a cell phone in the middle of Disney’s California Adventure instead of spending the day glued to my TV, consuming Derby Pie and Ale-8 slushes, as per my norm. So to the parents with small children who might be startled by a shouting redhead in the queue for the Tower of Terror, I’m sorry? No, really, the ride is fantastic – my screams are not of, you know. Terror.

The field for the 141st Kentucky Derby, Race 11 at Churchill Downs Saturday, May 2, post time 6:24pm EDT.

1—Ocho Ocho Ocho, Elvis Trujillo, 50-1 – In his only two races this year, he bombed the San Felipe and faded to third in the Bluegrass. Coming from the 1 hole he’ll have to show early speed, which he has, but anything other than a perfect break will probably mean toast. Combine his lackluster resume with the dreaded #1 saddlecloth and I’d say his best shot is a starting gate malfunction. Of course, I said the same thing about Mine That Bird in 2009.

2—Carpe Diem, John Velazquez, 8-1 – While this horse many not bring the bling of American Pharoah or Dortmund, he sure brings a lot of everything else. He’s consistent, always runs hard and gets the job done. His victory in the Bluegrass was professional and workmanlike: he came out to do a job, got it done, then went home and didn’t make a fuss about it. His lone knocks are a second in the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile to Texas Red and this post position: the 2 hole isn’t much better than the one and he could be facing some nasty traffic jams, especially if he doesn’t break well. Oh, and speaking of that, he’s notorious for bad gate behavior and tends to be excitable, which isn’t exactly the character profile you want in the Kentucky Derby. I’m admittedly biased as he’s a Keeneland homeboy, but this horse is legit and will likely go off at a better price than American Pharoah and Dortmund. If you want a good horse at a nice price, this is it, if you’re brave enough to swallow that post position (bourbon helps, by the way). I’m sticking with him, so bourbon it is.

3—Materiality, Javier Castellano, 12-1 – This horse is the Whiz Kid of 2015, once again hoping to defeat the Apollo Curse by winning the Derby without racing at age two. No one has done it since Apollo did it…in 1882. But there’s always a horse who makes you believe that this time it’ll be different, and this year it’s Materiality. He won Florida Derby over Upstart 5 weeks ago and looked good doing it, to keep him a perfect 3 for 3. However in addition to the Apollo Curse he’s also facing a tough post draw. Like Ocho Ocho Ocho and Carpe Diem he could be playing bumper cars early instead of running a horse race, which means he’ll have to grow up even faster without that two year old foundation to build off of. I’m not drinking the kool-aid this year.

4—Tencendur, Manny Franco, 30-1 – Long shot runner up to Frosted in the Wood Memorial, he lead almost every step until Frosted finally got by him in the stretch. It was an impressive race, but the pace was slow, the Derby is an eighth of a mile longer and will be run quicker. To make noise on Saturday, he’ll have to take a giant leap and land on the moon. But hey, Armstrong did it. If you’re looking for a long price on a gusty horse, consider him for your exotics.

5—Danzig Moon, Julien Leparoux, 30-1 – His second to Carpe Diem in the Bluegrass was certainly better than his fourth place finish to Carpe Diem in the Tampa Bay Derby, but this horse has only a maiden win on his resume, and hasn’t demonstrated he’s ready for prime time. I’ll pass.

6—Mubtaahij, Christophe Soumillon, 20-1 – If this race has an X factor, it’s this guy. He’s this year’s United Arab Emirates Derby winner, and ships in from Dubai. He has never run in the US, and previous UAE Derby winners haven’t done well in their Kentucky Derby pursuits. He’s bred for the distance and has run on dirt, but the rest is a series of question marks, and I’ve got nothing for you. If you want to take the risk, you could end up being the smartest person in the room. I’m from the Show Me State, so I’ll pass.

7—El Kabeir, Calvin Borel, 30-1 – Ran a fast-closing third in the Wood Memorial after winning the Gotham at Aqueduct. He’s a hard-working horse who always gives his all, but seems to have outrun his pedigree to get where he is. He picks up Calvin Borel for the Derby, which only helps his chances, as he’ll need a huge effort and a masterful ride to pull off the upset.  In fact that rather tempting 30-1 will surely drop simply because Borel is on his back. I think there are other horses in this field who want to run faster and farther, but it’s hard not to like a horse that tries this hard.

8—Dortmund, Martin Garcia, 3-1 – Big, lean horse with a gigantic stride that eats up ground like kids left alone with Halloween candy. This is both a blessing and a curse, as big-strided horses often need to make a long, sustained drive to do their best running, and the Derby often comes with traffic snarls. However Dortmund is the best kind of freak; an Anthony Davis like big man with tremendous versatility. He can run on the lead but doesn’t need it, and has guts coming out his eyeballs, as evidenced in the Robert Lewis when he lost the lead to Firing Line in the stretch, then battled back to get the victory. Oh, and did I mention he lost a shoe in the Santa Anita Derby and it didn’t faze him? This horse has done everything right and then some.  Leaving this horse out of your betting plans is silly.

9—Bolo, Rafael Bejerano, 30-1 – Hasn’t been able to get by Dortmund in two tries, managing two third place finishes, but in both races he showed that he’s no slouch. This horse is more of a grass horse, though Steve Haskin of the Blood-Horse has commented that he moves more like a dirt horse at Churchill. Regardless, in recent years, the Derby has been pretty good to horses with a turf background. Animal Kingdom and Barbaro had a history on grass and won the race, while Paddy O’Prado and Dullahan picked up a piece of the trifecta. So if you’re looking for a longshot price to fill out an exotic ticket, this could be a fun one.

 10—Firing Line, Gary Stevens, 12-1 – This will be an interesting horse to watch. In a field overloaded with talent he’ll possibly (hopefully) be overlooked despite his smashing Sunland Derby victory. Those skeptical of who he might have beaten in that race would do well to think back to the Robert Lewis, when this horse hooked horns with Dortmund and actually got by him in the stretch. The California string invading Louisville this year is a nice bunch, and this horse has the added appeal of flying a little under the radar with Gary Stevens (who has continually praised this horse) on his back. At 12-1 I’ll take him to the bank, and I suspect hope those odds might creep up rather than down.

11—Stanford, Florent Geeroux, 30-1 SCRATCHED. – In his last race he finished second in the Louisiana Derby after setting the pace and dueling with winner International Star all through the stretch. He comes from the barn of Todd Pletcher, who, if he had entered Madefromlucky, would have enough starters in this race to take the court for a basketball game. However Stanford seems to be the hardest of his horses to make a case for. Materiality sent him packing in the Islamorda, and I think Materiality is a better horse than International Star, who he also couldn’t get by. If Pletcher has a Thunder Gulch in his barn, I’d suggest it’s Itsaknockout rather than Stanford.

12—International Star, Miguel Mena, 20-1 – Swept all three prep races at the Fairgrounds, the LeComte, the Risen Star and most recently the Louisiana Derby over the tough-running Stanford. I’m not convinced he’s fast enough to keep up with some of the more heralded entrants in the race, but it’s hard to fault a horse that gives his best every time. Plus he’ll go through any hole you can find without batting an eye, which is a pretty useful trait to have in a race where holes open and close in a heartbeat and you’re basically trying to beat everyone home on the I-5 at rush hour on a Friday. And while 20-1 is hard to resist on a horse that’s done no wrong, I think there are other horses in the field with a better shot.

13—Itsaknockout, Luis Saez, 30-1 – He had a dull, off the board finish in Florida Derby after being awarded the Fountain of Youth victory following the DQ of Upstart, which makes it hard to know what to make of him. If the Florida Derby was a fluke, he could be a serious threat.

14—Keen Ice, Kent Desormeaux, 50-1 – …I know nothing about this horse. Carry on.

15—Frosted, Joel Rosario, 15-1 – This horse ran a surprising clunker in the Fountain of Youth, at which point trainer Kiaran McLaughlin gave him a minor throat procedure and modified his blinkers. The result was a very impressive win in in the Wood Memorial. 15-1 is a great price on him his odds stay that high. Plus, he’s grey.

16—War Story, Joe Talamo, 50-1 – Keeps playing second and third fiddle to ultra-consistent International Star, and can’t seem to get out from under his shadow. I’m of the opinion that if he hasn’t been able to get it done in Louisiana, he’s not getting it done at Churchill on Derby Day.

17—Mr. Z, Ramon Vazquez, 50-1 – He’s run against the best this crop has to offer, including  American Pharoah, Dortmund, International Star, Carpe Diem, Firing Line, Far Right, etc., and not been able to beat any of them. He’s got 12 starts under his belt but only one victory, and you have to go back to last summer to find it. His only ace in the hole? D. Wayne Lukas.

18—American Pharoah, Victor Espinoza, 5-2 – Reigning two year old champion and dominant winner of the Arkansas Derby, his only loss was his maiden race back in August of last year. He’s the likely favorite and a deserving one, with freakish speed and a proven ability to rate. Not to mention he seems to be the horse with The Work, the horse with a transcendent work the week of the race. There’s usually one every year, and that one often ends up in the winner’s circle. The outside post shouldn’t hurt him – assuming he breaks well he’ll be able to get clear and hopefully choose wherever he wants to be.

19—Upstart, Jose Ortiz, 15-1 – Beat Frosted in the Holy Bull, won the Fountain of Youth before he was DQ’d and placed second to Itsaknockout for interference in the stretch, and was a gutsy second to Materiality in the Florida Derby. No question he belongs in this race – he’s got the class and the race record to show he can play with the big boys. He’s a solid play, even with the outside post.

20—Far Right, Mike Smith, 30-1 – He’s been very consistent this year, with wins in the Southwest and Smarty Jones and a second to American Pharoah in the Arkansas Derby. He’s a true closer who doesn’t often miss his mark, and despite his 8 length defeat to unstoppable force that is American Pharoah, he could be a lively longshot on Saturday. The outside post suits his running style, and if he comes flying late he might be dangerous.

21—AE—Frammento, Corey Nakatani – Hard charging third in the Fountain of Youth that made him look more akin to a freight train than a horse. Trainer Nick Zito reportedly really wants this horse to have a shot, and thanks to the defection of Stanford, he’ll get it. He doesn’t have the record to support Zito’s claim that he belongs and will inherit post 20. If he’s on the improve, he could get a piece of the action at the end and light up the tote board for a few exactas and trifectas. He’s a longshot for a reason, but including him in some exotic bets isn’t the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.

So there’s the field. What does any of it actually mean? Who knows in the end. We could be witnessing the next step taken by a champion whose name we’ll carve into stone and remember for years to come, or we could wind up standing there with our jaws hanging open as we frantically flip through our notes trying to figure out who the hell Keen Ice is and what just happened? That’s the beauty of horse racing: you never know. But we certainly try. And with that said, here is where I’d put money:

Smart Money

  • American Pharoah
  • Dortmund
  • Carpe Diem
  • Firing Line
  • Frosted

Can’t Bet Them All

  • Upstart
  • Far Right

Wise Guy Longshots:

  • Bolo
  • Tencendur
  • Frammento

My Bets:

Exacta: American Pharoah over Frosted and Bolo. $2 exacta costs $4.

Trifecta: American Pharoah and Dortmund over those two plus Carpe Diem and Frosted, repeat all five and add Bolo. $2 exacta costs $64.

Win bets on Carpe Diem, Frosted

And there you have it! Now we just have to wait for the Call to the Post and My Old Kentucky Home. Someone drink a mint julep for me? I might have trouble finding one in Carsland.

In the Footsteps of Legends

The entrance to Claiborne Farm, marked by their iconic stone pillars.

The entrance to Claiborne Farm, marked by their iconic stone pillars.

This time of year, both hardened and casual racing fans alike have their sights set on Louisville, Kentucky and the first Saturday in May. But if you widen your gaze a little, you land in Lexington, Kentucky, where, if you take the time, you can take a stroll through the heart of horse country, and get a glimpse of where the horses loading into the starting gate came from, and where hopefully, they will retire to.

In some ways there’s more glitz and glamour in the Bluegrass than you’ll find in Hollywood. Multi-million dollar breeding sheds and barns that look like museums often put the typical human living quarters to shame, and sometimes you wonder if the local residents are really horses, or porcelain figures that should be kept behind glass. There is no question when you wander the grounds of Ashford Stud or Adena Springs Farm that you’re in the presence of greatness; the names engraved on the stall doors only confirm your suspicions.

But there is one farm that manages to capture that reverence while still maintaining the humble roots of its founding over a hundred years ago. It’s nestled off 627 just outside of picturesque Paris, Kentucky, and though it lacks the decadence of some of its neighbors, it is perhaps thoroughbred racing’s crown jewel and most treasured icon.

The main stallion barn, home of the famous Stall that was home to Bold Ruler, Secretariat, Easy Goer and Unbridled.

The main stallion barn, home of the famous Stall that was home to Bold Ruler, Secretariat, Easy Goer and Unbridled.

Its name is Claiborne Farm.

At Claiborne, things are simple. The residents live in rustic barns that have stood for nearly a century. The breeding shed is little more than four walls and a dirt floor. There is no marble. There are no showrooms. Here they do things the way they’ve done them since the farm’s founding in 1910.  After all, why change what works? Six out of the eleven Triple Crown winners were conceived in that breeding shed. 10 Kentucky Derby winners were foaled on these grounds. This was the home of the great Secretariat. The birthplace of Ruffian. Personal Ensign. Not bad for four walls and a dirt floor.

At Claiborne it’s not what you see – it’s what you feel.

A look at the stalls from the original stallion barn up on the hill. Home to the likes of Sir Ivor, Mr. Prospector, Danzig, Buckpasser and more.

A look at the stalls from the original stallion barn up on the hill. Home to the likes of Sir Ivor, Mr. Prospector, Danzig, Buckpasser and more.

What makes this farm great lives in the soil. It lives in the air. In the memory of legends, whose foot falls still echo on the pavement if you listen hard enough. History permeates the walls of the simple white barns with yellow trim. One single stall has seen the likes of Bold Ruler. Secretariat. Easy Goer. And Unbridled. One stall. Walk along the shedrow and you’ll find countless other names that will stop a racing fan in their tracks, take their breath away. For just a moment, the legend comes to life, again for some, for the first time for others. For just a moment they come out of the pages of history and breathe again. They were real. This is where they lived. And you’re walking in their footsteps right now.

There are almost always roses at Secretariat's gravesite, especially during the annual Secretariat Festival.

There are almost always roses at Secretariat’s gravesite, especially during the annual Secretariat Festival.

There is a cemetery next to the main office, one of three on all that acreage, that’s girded by a well-kept hedge. Inside, a courtyard of headstones bear the names of two Triple Crown winners, five Kentucky Derby winners, and some of the greatest stallions this sport has ever seen.  I’ve never been here and not seen roses on the final resting place of Secretariat. Here, in this place, he will never be forgotten.

The author, grinning like a fool with 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb.

The author, grinning like a fool with 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb.

With all that history, it’s easy to forget the present. Today Claiborne stands the likes of Kentucky Derby winner Orb, Breeder’s Cup Classic winner Blame, and top sire War Front, all of whom are more interested in peppermints than accolades. And the best part about it? You can feed them those peppermints. Claiborne Farm is among the most visitor-friendly farms in Central Kentucky, offering daily tours given by the stallion handlers, who are as well-versed in the farm’s history and tradition as any historian. For anyone making their pilgrimage to Churchill Downs this time a year, be it an annual trip or a first time adventure, taking the detour to Paris, Kentucky is well worth the time and effort. It’s living history, and you can be part of it.

Blame, the only horse to ever defeat the mighty Zenyatta, is actually a peppermint monster.

Blame, the only horse to ever defeat the mighty Zenyatta, is actually a peppermint monster.

Claiborne Farm is unique in the Bluegrass. It’s a place out of time. The farm you see today is little changed from a hundred years ago. Drive past the stone pillars and you enter a place where racing is still in its heyday. There are different heads peeking out from over those stalls, new legends in the making. Fresh coats of paint on the wood. But the same spirit endures. And hopefully always will.

Claiborne Farm: (859) 987-2330, 703 Winchester Road, Paris, KY 40361

Opening Day

Today marks the opening day for Keeneland’s 2015 spring meet, and though it’s a dreary, soggy day that might dampen the festivities, the magic is still in the air. Keeneland is here. Winter’s over. And Lexington is about to wake up from a really long, snow-induced nap.

Yes, they put this kind of thing on postcards.

Yes, they put this kind of thing on postcards.

Keeneland Racecourse is unique in the racing world; no other track in America quite compares. Other boutique venues such as scenic Del Mar in California and tradition-drenched Saratoga in upstate New York come close, but none manage to capture the broad, universal appeal of Keeneland. Keeneland isn’t a racetrack to Lexingtonians – it’s a social event, a celebration, one of our most treasured pastimes, and one that everyone, regardless of age, background or fluency in reading past performances, gets dolled up for.

Keeneland, quite simply, is just what you do in this town.

For the uninitiated, it’s an experience you have to take part in to truly understand. Imagine taking a step back into the 1940s, when fedoras were the norm and horse racing was as big as baseball. Where else can you go to find ladies determinedly donning their sundresses in 40 degree weather, young men who probably attended a frat party the night before dressed to the nines in snappy suits and ties, usually with a cigar in one hand and a mint julep in the other? You’ll never see a more disparate group of people crowding their way (sometimes 40,000 strong) into a racetrack – seasoned handicappers, college students who don’t know a horse’s ears from his tail, couples enjoying a romantic outing and of course, don’t forget the standard mix of superstar Kentucky basketball players and coveted high school recruits.

Keeneland Racecourse in April.

Keeneland Racecourse in April.

With only two three week meets offered during the year, in April and October, Keeneland any chance to go to the races is one to take. But while both meets offer some spectacular racing and beautiful scenery (not a coincidence they coincide with the height of spring blossoms and fall color), there is something special about the spring meet. Lexington comes out of hibernation on opening weekend in April, kicking winter to the curb and breaking out the most pastel tie in the arsenal and biggest set of high heels in the closet (even if it means barefootin’ it heels in hand by the end of the day). Visiting Keeneland in April is a lot like going to church on Easter morning, only with significantly more cigar smoke and a lot more booze. Also more cheering. Keeneland is a little less solemn than church.

The beautiful Keeneland Paddock in April.

That’s not snow! It’s spring!

For instance, you’ve probably never been to a place where so many well-dressed people find themselves ushered into a paddy wagon for celebrating (or bemoaning) a win ticket a little too hard. They might be a little too rambunctious, but they make it look good.

From the folks who tailgate on the spring grass on hill and never see a live horse, to wealthy patrons who pass the time dining away the afternoon in the Kentucky Room overlooking the grandstand, to the railbirds who arrive at the crack of dawn to stake out their spot at the finish line with a literal corral of ornate green benches, Keeneland’s got something for everyone, and there is no better time to visit than in April, when the color green is a sight for sore eyes and the fresh blossoms of spring hint at something even grander about 70 miles and one month down the road: roses.

If you’ve never made a trip to central Kentucky, put it on your bucket list. And schedule it for April.

Cranky Childhood Heroes

When I was a horse crazy kid, my parents got me my first Breyer model. Give the kid a fake horse and maybe she’ll be satisfied, right? Well, the problem was it wasn’t just a model of any horse. It wasn’t a paint horse, an appaloosa, a backyard pony or a fancy Morgan. It was a plain, brown horse in the middle of a long, fluid step, with no remarkable features or even a hint of white. There was nothing special about that model horse at all, actually, save for one thing:

His name was John Henry.

John Henry with the author in 2002. The photo flatters the legend, but not the human. As it should be.

John Henry with the author in 2002. The photo flatters the legend, but not the human. As it should be.

That model horse, inspired by a cranky but brilliant old gelding, whose accolades included two Horse of the Year titles over the course of a career that spanned an unheard of 10 years and one of the most memorable races of the decade in the inaugural 1981 Arlington Million , changed everything. From then on it wasn’t about horses, it was about hoofbeats. The roar of a crowd. It was about Man ‘O War. Ruffian. Citation. It was about roses and May and that elusive crown only eleven horses have ever worn. That model horse is why I made treks into the Holy Land of horse country anytime we visited family in Louisville, why I skipped my prom to go to the Kentucky Derby, why the moment I had my Master’s degree in my grubby little hands I hopped in the car and headed down I-64 with the Kentucky border set dead in my sights. It’s why I memorized all of the Kentucky Derby winners on accident, have old binders filled with newspaper articles and boxes of archived issues of the Blood-Horse that go back to 1995. It’s why I had a nine year career in the horse industry. Took thousands upon thousands of photos of famous – and not famous – thoroughbreds. In many ways, the trajectory of much of my life traces back to that horse.

John Henry at the Kentucky Horse Park in 2002.

John Henry at the Kentucky Horse Park in 2002.

And what an odd horse to fall in love with. John Henry didn’t have the blue blood of Secretariat. The elegance of Rachel Alexandra. The nobility of Northern Dancer. John Henry was the son of Ole Bob Bowers, who was about as illustrious as his name sounds, and his offspring was an ordinary looking creature with a less-than friendly attitude who reportedly earned his name after ripping a steel feed tub off the wall and throwing it at someone. You don’t come any more blue-collar than John Henry, from his less-than-humble lineage to his $1,100 price tag as a yearling to his 83 starts from 1977-1984.

During his final years at the Kentucky Horse Park, where he became the first Hall of Champions resident and sole occupant of the first stall on the left until his death at the great age of 32 in 2007, his handlers told me stories upon stories of him cornering hapless seasonal workers in the corner of his stall, biting the person presenting him during the daily Hall of Champions shows, etc. etc. My favorite was the tale of his colic surgery, when a veterinarian smacked him in the nose as he was coming out of anesthesia to help him come around. “Watch it,” someone told him. “He’ll remember that.” Later, when John Henry was fine and frisky, he indeed got his revenge with a well-placed bite – on the hapless vet’s nose.

John Henry started my love affair with thoroughbreds. He was my first idol. My first love. He was also the first time a legend stepped out of my imagination and became something real, from the first time I met him as a starstruck ten year old girl, to our last encounter shortly before he died. So as for the blog entries to come, if you enjoy them, this is the horse you can thank. The cranky old bastard who started it all.