This year's Kentucky Derby was billed as wide open. But all it took to come up with Always Dreaming was to fall back on what is become a dependable trend. Bet the horses who are unbeaten as 3YOs. There were only 3, including Always Dreaming, in this year's race and there were reasons to put a line through the other two. Over the past decade, this system is an 80% proposition. There's another high percentage handicapping tool in the Preakness.

When does a small sample become a recognized trend?

Always Dreaming became the sixth straight Kentucky Derby winner to reach the finish line undefeated as a 3YO. (If you want the names and exact numbers, they are in my previous column, just below this one.)

Excuse Animal Kingdom’s second-place finish in a turf race at Gulfstream and the list grows to seven, who went into and came out of the Derby perfect as a sophomore. Big Brown’s romp in 2008 makes it eight in 10 years. Anyone know of other 80 percent systems in racing?

It wasn’t as if you had to spread wide to come up with Always Dreaming. There were only three horses who met the undefeated standard and two could have had asterisks. Fast and Accurate was two-for-two in 2017 but one was on turf and the other was on Polytrack. Thunder Snow--who I will spend a long time living down--won a pair of races in Dubai.

The last Derby winner who had tasted defeat at a 3-year-old is Super Saver, Todd Pletcher’s only other winner. Coincidentally, both of Pletcher’s wins have come on off tracks.

Not to take anything away from Always Dreaming, who had as perfect a trip as you could hope for in a 20-horse field, but so many horses with gilded credentials misfiring has to be attributed in some way to lack of experience on off surfaces. Some handle it, others don’t. Lack of familiarity has to be at least a small factor.

I’ll never understand why trainers do everything they can to cover every other possible contingency in prepping for the Classics but change workout schedules and scratch from prep races to avoid anything but a fast surface.

Toss non-Derby horses

The prospective field for the Preakness stands at about 10. As I said, Always Dreaming had a near perfect trip but his combination of tactical speed and stamina untapped to this point makes him a tough beat. He worked out the same trip in the Florida Derby. Christopher Kay must be preparing his “the Belmont crowd will be capped at 90,000” press release already.

Before you even open the Racing Form, more than half Always Dreaming's challengers can be tossed because they didn’t start in the Kentucky Derby. Only three horses in this millennium have won the second jewel of the Triple Crown without competing in the Derby.

One was Rachel Alexandra, who won the Kentucky Oaks the day before the 2009 Derby. Rachel was a filly for the ages, arguably the best horse of her generation of either gender. Bernadini won the 2006 Preakness, which is infamous for undefeated Barbaro breaking down a few steps out of the gate. The other was Red Bullet in 2000.

You have to go back to 1983 and Deputed Testamony for another non-Derby starter winning the Preakness. That’s four in 34 years—two under extraordinary circumstances. This is not a trend savvy players want to buck.

Wood, Blue Grass fire blanks

The Wood Memorial and Blue Grass Stakes weren’t helped in their quest to retain Grade 1 status.

The Wood’s shortcomings were further exacerbated. Irish War Cry was the only one of the eight starters who even bothered to make the trek to Louisville and he ran 10th. If you’re looking for a straw to grasp, at least he beat Blue Grass winner Irap, who checked in 18th.

Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown, trainers of Wood runner-up Battalion Road and show horse Cloud Computing, respectively, decided their horses weren’t up to America’s race. I believe subsequent races will show these to be astute decisions. They might win some stakes but unless the attrition rate is worse than usual, I doubt a Grade 1 will be among them.

The Blue Grass, which seemed like the most loaded of the final preps, sent five starters, including its first four, to Churchill Downs. The best it got was Practical Joke’s fifth-place finish. Practical Joke is already a dual Grade 1 winner as a juvenile and some of the other also-rans, most notably, McCraken and Tapwrit, might fare well in big races later this year. But unless some of them bag Grade 1 stakes in 2017, the Blue Grass need not apply to regain Grade 1 status.

A very live corpse

It’s time for those closest to racing—myself included—to stop wringing their hands about the alleged many things allegedly killing the sport--drugs, breakdowns, abuse of whips, etc. America has repeatedly indicated it really doesn't care, at least not a lot. This is not to say these problems shouldn't be addressed. They just should not be obsessed over.

The Kentucky Derby TV ratings were the strongest since 1989. NBC’s average audience was 16.5 million with 19.1 million tuned in for the actual race, according to fast Nielsens. This was the biggest Saturday audience for any program of any kind since an NFL playoff game—the gold standard—in January. It was also the most watched program of any kind last week by a blowout. The two prime-time leaders, "NCIS" and "The Big Bang Theory," pulled in 12.89 million and 12;38 million, respectively.

As someone who covered TV full time for more than 30 years I can say without equivocation there is not a single series, special program (Oscars, etc.) or sport, including the NFL, whose ratings are as strong now as they were 15 years ago, let alone almost 30.

“American Idol,’ which is coming back next season, was referred to by rival networks as “the death star” because of the extent to which it crushed all competition during its heyday. At its peak, more than 30 million Americans watched. When it left the air at the end of last season, the audience had dwindled to about 10 million. Meanwhile, the year “American Idol” debuted, 2002, the Derby attracted just under 13 million viewers, almost four million fewer than this year.

Fans bet more than $200 million on a single card Saturday for the first time in history, despite the dismal weather and sloppy track.

This comes on the heels of all kinds of terrific news from around the nation. Gulfstream had another record-breaking winter season. Oaklawn was up 5 percent, which allowed purses to soar to more than $500,000 a day. Maryland, a dead racing state walking only a few years ago, saw its average handle soar 22% during its winter meeting.

The only major jurisdiction with a sad story is Southern California and this can be attributed to inept management and horsemen who repeatedly demonstrate they view fans as suckers to be fleeced.

All of this comes in an era of ever increasing competition from casinos, state lotteries, fantasy sports games and widespread availability of playing poker and betting sports online, illegal though much of it is.

The message is a lot of Americans really enjoy and embrace racing when the show is good. Those who participate in and cover the sport should keep this in mind when they fret about all that’s wrong with this “dying” sport.

Miami, May 11, 2017