Saturday, May 01, 2010
Getting King Kong Off His Back
The first time I ever heard "I got the monkey off my back" in connection with the Kentucky Derby was in 1981. Jorge Velasquez used the expression about five minutes after he and Pleasant Colony held off the flying Woodchopper at Churchill Downs. Velasquez, nine years away from being voted into the Racing Hall of Fame, was a mere 0 for 5 in the Derby, but it was a good thing Pleasant Colony came along, because he never won another Derby, and went another 0 for 9 in the race by the time he retired.
In all the years Todd Pletcher brought Derby horses to Louisville, I never heard him talk about make-believe primates perching on one of his shoulders. He tried to act as though his Derby oh-for was no big deal, but those who know him best will tell you that it was. The hairy goblin on his back was more than a monkey, even more than a gorilla. To keep himself awake at night, Pletcher was going steady with that celluloid character who got to the top of New York's tallest building.
The portents for a Pletcher-Borel-WinStar Farm Derby win were not the greatest. A month ago, WinStar had four solid Derby hopefuls, but as the race got closer, Rule and Endorsement turned turtle and by race day Kenny Troutt and Bill Casner were down to just a pair, American Lion and Super Saver. American Lion had won the Illinois Derby, and that and a buck seventy-five might get you a cup of coffee; and Super Saver hadn't won a race this year.
As for Pletcher, he had a holster full of Derby bullets going into April, but less than two weeks out, his Mortal Lock, Eskendereya, was withdrawn. By the time they put the horses in the starting gate, Pletcher still had four representatives, but one was a filly and none of the other three was deigned to be in Eskendereya's league.
As for Borel, the day before the Derby, which is Oaks Day in Louisville and just plain Friday for the rest of the Western world, came with dicey tidings. Rachel Alexandra, Borel's Horse of the Year mount, lost another race, and the rumor mill ground out a beauty about Borel getting dumped and Robby Albarado taking over as the filly's new rider. Asked about this, Jess Jackson, Rachel Alexandra's owner, didn't say yes and didn't say no. If Jackson's life were a soap opera, the title would be, "As the Stomach Churns."
Borel's style is to fight fire with fire. He won an early race on the Derby Day card with Zimmer, a well-named colt (after a baseballer) but a 4-year-old maiden just the same. Closer to the Derby, Borel won a sprint stake with a thing called Atta Boy Roy. Atta Boy Roy is a 5-year-old Washington-bred ridgling (and a May foal) who's spent much of his time at bastions such as Emerald Downs and Turf Paradise. When Atta Boy Roy got to the line ahead of the others, I looked up at the tote board and expected to see Mine That Bird Derby-type mutuels. He had been 20-1 on the morning line, but went off at 10-1. Methinks those in the vicinity of Atta Boy Roy's shedrow were on to something.
I watched the Derby in the racebook at the Flamingo in Las Vegas. As the race itself loomed, a surplus of putative information engulfed the room. Since this was a Derby with few legitimate throwouts, theories were unending. A stranger stopped at my table and asked me for the betting number for Stately Victor, the Blue Grass winner.
"What do you think?" he said.
"I'm not using him," I said.
"Take a look at the breeding," he said. "Great mud breeding."
That forced me to return to the windows for a courtesy $5 on Stately Victor's nose, but I still didn't really use him. By the way, he finished eighth.
I cashed a small bet, a saver wager really, on Super Saver, and while waiting in line with my ticket, those around me were talking about the extraordinary Borel, who has three Derbys in the last four years. It took riders like Angel Cordero and Gary Stevens a lifetime to win that many.
"I laid off of him all day," one of them holding tickets on Super Saver said. "I don't know what I was thinking. All he did was ride like hell. By the time they ran the Derby, I couldn't stay away from him any longer. How can you not bet him, when he rides in the Derby?"
Only a churl would point out that Borel never finished better than eighth in four Derbys before he began stockpiling them. Now the line forms to the right. There are legions of trainers, the ones with unraced 2-year-olds in their barns, who'd like to sign him up right now for Derby 2011. Get this jockey, and the horse will take care of itself.