Serious fans and bettors were anticipating the Kentucky Oaks with almost as much fervor as Derby 139 itself.
However, the three unbeaten fillies that entered the Churchill starting gate Friday are no longer undefeated, and the longingly awaited return of Dreaming of Julia could have gone a lot better, too.
The leading member of Todd Pletcher’s four Oaks fillies, coming off the effort of this or any other year, never had a chance after getting mugged at the start.
It’s why they call it gambling.
For Pletcher, at least, there was safety in numbers. Princess of Slymar might not have been good enough to handle Close Hatches at Aqueduct last month but she was plenty good enough yesterday at the Downs.
With Mike Smith sitting outside in the clear while a pressured pace percolated up in front of him, the longshot tandem came roaring down the middle of the track with the filly making the late run that she prefers. So now Pletcher has three Oaks to his credit while Smith got his first. Now he's got a Princess of Slymar to go along with his Giacomo.
And it’s not often you collect 30-1 on a Pletcher-trained anything.
Meanwhile, early indications are that the country's most dominant trainer might start an undefeated 11-1 chance in Derby 139 on Saturday.
Indeed, how the stock on the mighty Verrazano has fallen, at least in the eyes of early Derby bettors, anyway.
What continues to amaze is the fact that for such a huge event, betting on the Kentucky Derby is often provincial. Take the early odds, for instance, and consider why, in part, the prices are what they are:
Revolutionary (Calvin Borel, the Derby jockey) is 5-1; Goldencents (Rick Pitino, the Derby coach) is 5-1; Orb (Shug McGaughey, the local boy) is 6-1. At least those were the prices we checked at 7:28 p.m. on Oaks night.
Let’s consider a few others where personalities might have affected the odds:
Oxbow with another rider would be a bigger price than 25-1, but a lot of people are rooting for Gary Stevens these days.
Rosie “60 Minutes” Napravnik is 14-1; Mylute has gotten a little longshot love buzz but, realistically, he probably should be twice the price.
The Derby, of course, is a race where every breath taken by the horses or their handlers is overanalyzed. In that way, it’s like the Super Bowl, but the choices there are only two-fold: take points; lay points.
In the spirit of Princess of Sylmar, then, I took one final look at the past performances seeking the plausibly improbable.
But, really, I will be pretty surprised if the winner did not come from among Orb, Verrazano, Revolutionary and Normandy Invasion. All but the latter are very accomplished three-year-olds.
On paper, I can’t beat this four-horse entry. Then, yesterday, I couldn’t beat Dreaming of Julia, Midnight Lucky, Unlimited Budget and Close Hatches either.
That’s why it’s gambling, remember?
I took Normandy Invasion and Revolutionary in exacta wheels in the first futures pool in February. I haven’t seen anything since that has caused me to panic.
But I’d be a fool not to be impressed by what Verrazano and Orb have accomplished.
I’m going on record with Normandy Invasion to win Derby 139, even if he’s become a little speed crazy this past week. I figure that if this were the fourth race on Thursday and not the Derby, I wouldn't have a clue about that.
The price of 8-1 on the Wood runnerup is fair but it probably will drop a notch, as will Orb. Verrazano figures to drop several notches but Revolutionary’s odds figure to climb slightly.
At 6:14 p.m. on Saturday they will play “that song” and a tear will come to in my eye. I’ll overbet the race, as is my patriotic duty, I’ll cheer, then have a cocktail before dinner whatever the result.
But for now, it’s Kentucky Derby time, and on Sunday morning the sun will shine bright on my country, if only for a little while.