It is impossible, of course, to duplicate the Derby experience. Although promoted as “the most exciting two minutes in sport,” each Run for the Roses is its own complicated story, having a beginning and end like no other.
Here, then, are the highlights and lowlights of the most recent spectacle. They have nothing to do with the winner.
The Take of the Race. A recap would not be complete without saluting the Derby’s record numbers. From a purely statistical viewpoint, the 137th edition was the biggest in just about every category. The crowd numbered 164,858, surpassing the record set in 1974 for the centennial running. At more than $165 million for the day, the all-sources wagering total was the third highest ever. Oaks day was a numeric success, too, drawing 110,211 patrons – the third largest in Oaks history. For those who believe a “name brand” horse is required to bring out a crowd, the numbers don’t bear this out.
In a Class of its Own. The Derby and Oaks day races were superb. On Friday, last year’s Kentucky Oaks winner Blind Luck made a triumphant return to the scene of her greatest victory by rallying from worst to first to edge Unrivaled Belle in the Gr. 2 La Troienne. In addition, jockey Martin Garcia pushed First Dude’s proboscis in front of Regal Ransom’s to win the Gr. 3 Alysheba - a race that nobody thought he did. Rosie Napravnik almost wore lilies for guiding St. John’s River to Kentucky Oaks glory, but Plum Pretty hung on.
Saturday’s offerings were equally thrilling – world class festival strong. Broken nose and all, Robby Albarado rode Sassy Image to victory over the game Hilda’s Passion in the Grade 1 Humana Distaff. Dogwood’s Aikenite proved his win on the Keeneland polytrack was not caused by track bias as he triumphed by a nose over Apriority in another stakes. Even the races that nobody watches – those that are run when the crowd's still at brunch – attracted high-quality runners that racetracks elsewhere would have in their features.
Painting the Track Pink. The breast cancer research group, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, owned Kentucky Oaks day. Its members dressed Churchill Downs with its trademark pink from top to bottom, including bunting on the buildings and the balls on the top of the finishing posts. A survivors’ walk on the track by hundreds of women who beat the deadly disease was inspiring. After only two years, one can’t imagine what Kentucky Oaks Friday would be without pink.
Front-runner for an Emmy. There’s no better horse racing analyst on television than Gary Stevens. He was superb with his explanations of why horses ran as they did in the Derby, noting such details as Dialed In blinking his eyes from the kickback to Pants of Fire being slow to change leads. Except for an excess of Saccharine violin music and the confusion caused by the intrusion of the on-track announcer’s call while Larry Collmus called the race for TV, NBC’s Derby coverage was furlongs better than other networks. How good Randy Moss, Laffit Pincay III and their cohorts on Versus were. If the sport’s resigned to only four or five days of network TV, make them all NBC days.
The “Defection” Derby. The late term defections by horses that excelled as two-year-olds continue to haunt the Derby. Last November, at Breeders’ Cup time, the current crop of three-year-olds was being hailed as the best in a decade. Expectations of watching a Derby with To Honor and Serve, Boys At Tosconova, Jaycito and Rogue Romance included were high. Hopes were raised even higher by the Kentucky Derby trail exploits of horses like Premier Pegasus and Toby’s Corner – two others that fell by the wayside.
There have always been disappointments such as these. Yet, in recent years, the trend seems to be gathering steam (Eskendereya, Quality Road, I Want Revenge, etc.). In addition, Uncle Mo’s drop-out was handled poorly by his owner and trainer, who entered last year’s Eclipse Award-winning two-year-old champion on Wednesday thus shutting another horse out, continued to double-speak and bloviate on Thursday, until finally announcing on Friday morning what everyone in the media center knew was going to happen all along.
Soap Box Orators. Turf writers were kind, by and large, to the candid Barry Irwin by not reporting that the CEO of Team Valor International squandered a chance to be gracious. In the post-Derby interview room, Irwin lambasted the press for concentrating on history instead of the present. He took after the racetracks for mistreating owners in partnerships and complained that all trainers that worked for him before Motion were liars, a blanket indictment that caught Bob Neumeier by surprise on the network telecast. In fielding questions after the Oaks, John Fort of Peachtree was pontific and windy. There’s no coaching owners on what to say in their post-race interviews, but these two, in particular, have had better days in front of a microphone.
Keystone Cops at Your Service. An extravaganza that attracts a crowd like the Derby’s can expect to have traffic problems. But the amount of time that it took people to exit the track at the end of Oaks and Derby day was appalling. For example, some members of the media, who began covering the day’s events as early as 5:30 am, waited as long as an hour and fifteen minutes for a van to ferry them back from the track to the parking lot – a trek out of walking distance for cameramen with heavy equipment. The excuse given for the delay was that National Guardsmen wouldn’t allow the vans to come back to the track once they departed the track with their first load of passengers. Isn’t this a problem that someone can solve?
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