There might not have been a Kentucky Derby with as many exceptionally talented horses as this year's Run for the Roses will boast. In a related development, there might not have been a Kentucky Derby with as many extraordinary equine and human interest stories. On the negative side, the usual late attrition has opened the door for horses who have no business in America's most important race.


The late, great Joe Hirsch used to say he didn't root for horses in big races, he rooted for the best story. Joe would have relished this year's Kentucky Derby. There are more potentially great stories than drunks in the infield.

The Curse of Apollo will be a dominant storyline one way or the other. The over-under on how long it will take NBC to bring it up is about the same as the time it will take to run the Derby, about two minutes.

If Justify or Magnum Moon get to wear the roses, the curse will go the way of the dosage index. If these two exceptional colts come up short, the curse will be cited as a factor, if not the factor, and we'll have to put up with it for at least another year.

Given contemporary training techniques, it's only a matter of when, not if, the jinx will die. If not for the points system, we'd see some hotshot jump right from a maiden triumph into the Derby.

As I mentioned in a prior column, there's a numerology coincidence related to this year being the one when we get to stop talking about Apollo. Maryland-Baltimore County was the 136th No. 16 seed to attempt to topple the No. 1 seed when they took down Virginia. It's 136 years since Apollo, unraced as a 2-year-old, got the money at Churchill Downs.

Another prominent "never been done" barrier will be obliterated if Mendelssohn ships over from Dubai to wear the roses. His 18-length UAE tour de force was to the Middle East what Secretariat's Belmont was to the homeland.

But it was the UAE Derby. History teaches that earning your gate pass for Louisville in Dubai is like getting a medical degree in Honduras. No UAE Derby champion has ever hit the board in the Derby. Thunder Snow, the 2017 winner, embarrassed the UAE Derby when he didn't run a yard, literally, in Louisville.

Then again, Mendelssohn has already proven himself stateside in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf.

In the incestuous world of thoroughbred breeding, there's a fascinating familial connection involving Mendelssohn. His mother, Leslie's Lady, also dropped Into Mischief, the father of Audible.

Good Magic would be a great story. Chad Brown is a protege of Bobby Frankel, arguably the greatest trainer never to win the Derby. Brown's not a talker but he doesn't have to be coaxed to launch a filibuster on what Frankel meant to him. He's also an unemotional guy but even he might not be able to keep it together if the Frankel connection is raised in the post-race winner's circle.

Speaking of mentor-protege relationships, The Coach, 84-year-olds D. Wayne Lukas, is back with Bravazo for another try to win his fifth Derby. Among those standing in his way are Todd Pletcher and his fearsome foursome and Kiaran McLaughlin with Enticed. Both served their apprenticeships under Lukas and regard him as reverentially as Brown does Frankel.

Hirsch was not known as a bettor, which could not be said of me. I love a great story, too, but not more than a bet on a Derby winner. I'll have my selection after the posts are drawn next week.

Late dropouts

The points standings make for good copy all along the Derby trail but most years attrition after all the qualifiers have been run diminish its significance.

Forty points has been considered the magic number to guarantee a spot in the Churchill starting gate throughout the winter and spring. This proved to be an astute assessment. After the qualifying dust had cleared, Hofburg would have been No. 20 with 40 points. Firenze Fire would have been on the outside looking in with 39.

Then the inevitable defections started. First Sunland Derby winner Runaway Ghost dropped out with a minor injury. Then Euro qualifier Gronkowski came down with a minor infection, which will keep him at home. Karma must be a Derby fan. Neither belonged off their minor achievements.

The latest to drop out is Quip, who is said by trainer Rudolphe Brisset to need more than the three weeks from the Arkansas Derby to the big one in Louisville, so he'll wait for the Preakness.

To accept this, you have to believe Brisset was stunned to discover this week that the Arkansas Derby, his choice for Quip's final prep, is three weeks out from the big one. If this explanation had any validity, he could have started Quip in either of the April 7 preps, the Wood Memorial or the Blue Grass. This would have created a four-week bridge from Tampa and another four-weeks to recharge his batteries for Louisville.

Brisset came close to revealing the real reason when he said, "The ownership has a few other horses (for the Derby), so it was an easy decision." Winstar and the China Horse Club share ownership in Justify and Audible, who could be the first two betting choices on Cinco de Mayo. Winstar also has an interest in Noble Indy. Quip is a very nice colt but he doesn't figure to outrun any of these at this point. Why couldn't Brisset just have said this in the first place?

The three dropouts have made this spring's pursuit of points essentially meaningless. In addition to Firenze Fire, Combatant is in with 32 points and Instilled Regard qualifies with 29. One more dropout will put Blended Citizen into the field with 22 points and there are two horses on the cusp with 20. You can get that with a third-place finish in any of the final phase of preps.

No late entrants

I'd like to offer an idea that would keep the unworthy out and make the Derby less of a rodeo. After the final preps, lock in the top 20 point-earners, including foreigners getting their unique passes. Any attrition after that reduces the size of the field.

At this point, next Saturday's Derby would have 17 runners. Would any of the late-qualifiers be missed?

Right now, there is a 40 percent chance that Justify, Magnum Moon, Audible, Good Magic, Mendelssohn, Bolt d'Oro, Noble Indy or Vino Rosso will draw the No. 1 death slot. That's unacceptable, especially since one of the less accomplished horses, who got in through someone else's misfortune, could draw favorably.

This isn't going to happen because Churchill values the revenue generated by the bloated field more than it does about a truly run race. So, at the very least, the lowest point-earner should automatically be assigned the rail.