On Thursday’s NTRA conference call, jockey Gary Stevens, who has the ride on Royal Mo in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes, recalled a conversation he had with Mike Smith following last week’s rough and tough rumble in Louisville.

Smith, who had the Kentucky Derby mount on Girvin, said post-race: “He was getting knocked around so many times and the poor guy just never had a shot…

“I felt like I was in the one-hole. I finally get him running at the three-eighths pole and someone wiped out four of us again.”

This of course is routine and not an exception in the 20-horse race on an American dirt track that’s one-mile in circumference.

In a macabre sense, this unknowable unknown, controlled by racing’s fickle gods of fate, bring added excitement to the Derby’s mystique but also raises the danger quotient in what already is a perilous exercise for both humans and equines.

“Classic Empire’s fourth was spectacular,” began Stevens. “What do they say, it is what it is? That means if you don’t get way good you just got screwed. There were several incidents this year, very heavy contact going on at the three-eighths.

“It’s up there with the roughest I’ve ever seen,” said the ageless Hall of Famer from the sidelines, whose Preakness ride didn’t make the Derby cut.

If it were at all possible, I asked Stevens if a 20-horse starting gate would reduce the chances of potentially hazardous race dynamics and would also ensure the possibility of more cleanly event.

Speaking from the heart, a reconstructed knee and a rebuilt hip Stevens thought “it would be a great idea. We’re never going back to 14-horse fields.

“There’s a pretty good gap [between the main and auxiliary gates] going from outside to inside and looks like the outside gate is pointing in.”

From the Classic Empire camp, Mark Casse had another perspective: “So many things can go wrong. Our horse traveled 75 feet winner farther than the winner and 90 feet farther than the second horse. At 8-1/2 feet per length, we could have finished closer, gotten a better placing.

“He couldn’t even open his right eye until the next day, which also might have been a factor [from the incident soon after the start]. The auxiliary gate is tilted inside and is 13-½ feet from them main gate. When those horses come inside they’re at a full head of steam.

“Everybody came from outside and killed us,” said Luis Saez, who rode J Boys Echo. “I tried to rush and see what we got but by the half-mile everyone was gone.”

“I’m not sure a 20-horse gate is possible due to maneuverability,” offered Casse, “but getting the auxiliary gate closer to the main gate [could help].

“I noticed the outside gate was slanted inward at the start. If that gap were narrowed there would be less room to fall. They should look into something.”

I know little about gate construction and less about aero-dynamics, but a 20-stall gate would allow the #1 horse to move closer to a safer part of the chute and the outside horses wouldn’t enjoy a momentum advantage breaking inside down toward the rail.

Parenthetically, I needed to watch the start of the 2016 Derby as the overhead view from this year’s Derby on NBC Sports’ overhead shot were not available Sunday morning. (If anyone can find access, please share them here).

The Derby gate could live against that back fence permanently, eliminating the maneuverability issue. Many tracks use more than one gate now.

We hope that CDI look seriously into the possibility of one 20-horse gate for safety and form’s sake. Given the Derby’s profitability, it’s not too much to ask ad would be good PR for the sport.

BETS ‘N PIECES: The Peter Pan Stakes often has a profound effect on Belmont Stakes form. But that unlikely will be the case this year given yesterday’s sloppy conditions in New York and the possibility that undefeated Timeline is more suited to the Haskell than Belmont.

“We had spoken [with owner Bill Farish] earlier in the day that if we had some success here, the Haskell is a race that we have a lot of interest in,” said Chad Brown. “[Timeline] doesn't strike me as a mile-and-a-half horse…and we're still in the developmental stage..."

Dermot Weld Keeps Go[ing] and Go[ing], using Belmont Park as his personal American playground. The filly Zhukova defeated males again, taking yesterday’s boggy Grade I Man o’ War. “It was a major target,” explained Weld’s son, Mark. “The rains came and it was a huge help.”

The turn of foot displayed by that type of ground was eye-catchingly unusual. “She’s a true European Grade 1 mare,” added Weld. “You don’t beat the Breeders’ Cup winner Found very easily, he said of his world class filly…”

Trainer Rodrigo Ubilio deserves props for his expert management with Highway Star, the New York-bred who beat stablemate Bar of Gold to take the G3 Beaugay, keeping the filly undefeated in four starts at Belmont Park and at the mile distance. Top NY breeders Chester and Mary Broman, often cited here, bred both fillies…

A useful reminder of some great turf writing in a NY Times piece Friday on five top Horse Racing Books, including Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit, C. E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings, Bill Nack’s Secretariat, the Making of a Champion, Joe Palmer’s This Was Racing and Steve Davidowitz’s comprehensive handicapping tome, Betting Thoroughbreds in the 21st Century.

During Derby Week, my friend and former colleague John Piesen passed away in a New Jersey hospice following a lengthy illness. A friendly ‘competitor’ at the New York Post while I was at Newsday, we shared good times on the road at Triple Crown events, Penn National’s “World Series of Handicapping” and enjoyed more than a few memorable Whitney eve’s in Saratoga, where Vegas “happens there-stays there” rules apply.

Suffice it to say we were younger and a lot less wise. RIP, my friend.

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL--May 14, 2017