The woman clutches her oversized plastic bag to her chest. Finally, the stewardess says the inevitable, “You can’t keep that bag there, it’s got to be stowed under the seat in front of you or in the overhead compartment.” The woman wavers, stammers…then a man flying to another Derby chimes in, “Is that your Derby hat?” The woman smiles. The stewardess smiles, “I’ll take good care of it.”
It’s Derby time.
Orb galloped early. Black Onyx scratched. Fear The Kitten gets a reprieve. Todd Pletcher loads five arrows in a big bow. Chad Brown tries to reach the next peg. Eddie Plesa tries to define his career. Aidan O’Brien tries to rock the world.
Bullets would ricochet off the dirt track. Tarps have become tents in the infield. The National Anthem plays again, we’ve stood and sat all morning. The horses warm up for the first. It feels like November, not May. The rain is coming.
And once again, the game teeters. In hours, the sport will be heightened or deflated, depending on what happens when 19 horses run 10 furlongs in 2 minutes.
In my 12 Derbies, the worst moment was when Eight Belles died. From the trenches of the outside rail, live, you didn’t know what had happened. Larry Jones looked distraught, guards stopped grooms, writers, trainers from walking onto the track, I was squeezed against the wall of the paddock chute until I searched for an escape, chaos reigned. On the day of the race, at that moment, you knew something had happened, that was it. Later, the enormity of the calamity grew larger and larger as the sport would never be the same. The exposure burned.
The best moment was when Barbaro remained undefeated, streaking to his Derby win, full of life, energy and conviction. It was the epitome of a good story; modern-day heroes Michael Matz and Edgar Prado and a horse who had it all. Weeks later, that all changed, and again, the sport would never be the same.
A race, based as much on luck as skill, defines the status of the sport. As Cot Campbell, who came to his first Derby to see Shut Out win in 1942, says, “You’ve got to have an awful good horse and he’s got to be lucky that day and maybe you need somebody else to be unlucky.”
The sport looks good or bad because of luck. Prepare to rejoice or prepare to brace.
If Orb, for example, gets lucky, the sport has a good story to tell. If Vyjack, for example, gets lucky, the sport needs to brace itself.
Orb wins, the story writes itself – old-school trainer, blood runs deep, the tradition and the commitment, the game is good, film crews go to Claiborne Farm and dig up footage of Bold Ruler. If Vyjack wins, the story writes itself – young trainer, former assistant to the banished Rick Dutrow, recent medication suspensions, the game is bad. I’m not picking on Rudy Rodriguez, nor am I anointing Shug McGaughey, I like both of them and respect the jobs they do, but it’s the sad truth of the sport we play, the times in which we live.
Last year, I’ll Have Another won the Derby and dredged up the past transgressions of trainer Doug O’Neill, like him or hate him, respect him or abhor him, he was the lead marketer for the sport for five weeks (well, five weeks minus a day).
Who wins this year? What stories are told? How does the sport look? We need to get lucky.