May 1

Kentucky Derby Preview

Posted By:Josh Morse - Kearney, NE  Tags:

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Photo: Throw Them BoNes

Horse racing established itself as a populist sport long ago. Seabiscuit, as the blockbuster film informs us, was an apt representative of the 1930s zeitgeist. He was smaller than the other horses, the odds were against him—he was the horse that the downtrodden wanted to win. He was the horse of the Depression.
 
Today, of course, it's rare to find a comparable equine celebrity. Few are aware of the Derby drama that unfolded in the past week—a favorite contender, Quality Road, was sidelined by an unfortunate hoof injury. The second-place runner in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile dropped out as well. Few sports fans can name a single horse in Saturday's Kentucky Derby, save for those who follow the sport voraciously; certainly there's no well-known contender like last year's Big Brown. Still, horse racing—and the Derby, in particular—speaks to the American desire to survive tough times.
 
This Saturday, General Quarters, who sold for a paltry $20,000 at auction to a retired school principal (who is, incidentally, also his trainer), will race against Dunkirk, who had a whopping $3.7 million price. They will start the race just one post apart.
 
Sure, many sports have Cinderella stories. But when the championships roll around, there are no underdogs. There are no hardscrabble Super Bowl champions living in one-room apartments. There are no five-figure price tags on World Series prizewinners.
 
Even the favored horse in the derby, the frighteningly named I Want Revenge, went for far less than $1 million at auction. Pedigree often determines these auction values. But, horse-racing historian Allan Carter is quick to point out, a horse with a big price tag doesn't necessarily pay off. The Green Monkey, who netted $16 million at auction, never won a race. General Quarters dominates his multimillion-dollar rival in career earnings. Dunkirk, to date, has earned approximately $400,000 less than the scrappy Quarters. In horse racing, unlike most professional sports, prestige and price tag mean very little.
 
Top Contenders: I Want Revenge (11/4), Pioneerof the Nile (6/1), Friesan Fire (13/2)
I Want Revenge is unbeaten since switching from a synthetic to a dirt track. Since being beaten at Santa Anita Park in February by Pioneerof the Nile and Papa Clem, I Want Revenge and regular rider Joe Talamo have combined for two straight victories at Aqueduct, romping in the Gotham Stakes in March and taking down the Wood Memorial in April despite a rough start. The Stephen Got Even colt has looked calm and confident a Churchill Downs and will be tough to beat.

Pioneerof the Nile has never raced on dirt, but that hasn't stopped him from looking superb in workouts at Churchill Downs this week.  Undefeated this year, Pioneerof the Nile has made huge strides in his ability to focus from gate to wire - a quality that was lacking early on this season. The only question remaining is whether his form will translate from synthetic to dirt.

Also unbeaten this year, Friesan Fire hasn't raced since his triumph on March 14 in the slop at Fair Grounds in the Louisiana Derby but if the rain keeps falling at Churchill Downs, that experience on an off-track will be advantageous come Derby day. What may be a disadvantage is that Friesan Fire has not raced outside of Fair Grounds since December 2008 and could find the transition to Churchill Downs difficult.

Potential Sleeper: Desert Party (16/1)

Desert Party was heralded as Godolphin Stable's greatest Derby hope when he beat highly regarded stablemate Vineyard Haven in the UAE Guineas in February. But after running flat and losing to stablemate Regal Ransom in the UAE Derby in March, Desert Party  was largely discounted. But since arriving at Churchill Downs, the Street Cry colt has sparkled in workouts and could be gearing up for an upset.
 
Longshot: General Quarters (28/1)

If you like the underdog, look no further than the sentimental choice, General Quarters. Trained by 75-year-old Thomas McCarthy, General Quarters clinched a berth to the Kentucky Derby with his upset victory in the Blue Grass Stakes on April 11. The colt has looked energetic in workouts and may just get a storybook ending to his Cinderella tale.

There are differences, of course, between the national appetite for horse racing in the 1930s and today. Since the 1930s, Thoroughbred ownership has become democratized. Whereas only the wealthy gentry once gained entry to the racing elite, today $20,000 can put you in the running for the sport's biggest prize,
Yet even if horse racing is more accessible, fewer people appear to be interested in it. Viewership for the Kentucky Derby in recent years is about half of what it was in 1975,
 
Racing historian Carter notes that "back [in the '30s], that was the only way you could gamble," at least legally. Maybe there's something about today's economy that feels more like the randomness of a casino than like a 10-furlong sprint.
 
Odds to win the 2009 Kentucky Derby:
(courtesy of Bodog.com)
 
West Side Bernie: 35/1
Musket Man: 25/1
Mr. Hot Stuff: 30/1
Advice: 30/1
Hold Me Back: 15/1
Frisean Fire: 5/1
Papa Clem: 20/1
Mine That Bird: 50/1
Join In The Dance: 50/1
Regal Ransom: 25/1
Chocolate Candy: 12/1
General Quarters: 25/1
I Want Revenge: 3/1
Atomic Rain: 50/1
Dunkirk: 9/2
Pioneer of the Nile: 9/2
Summer Bird: 50/1
Nowhere to Hide: 50/1
Desert Party: 12/1
Flying Private: 50/1


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