There's no clear front-runner in this year's race, but here are some contenders worth rooting for, even if they don't win
I don't know who is going to win the 137th Kentucky Derby Saturday, and even if I did I wouldn't tell you. There is no overwhelming favorite this year, and even if there were it wouldn't mean much. The legendary Barbaro, after all, went off at odds of 6-1 in 2006 in the last full race of his star-crossed life. Besides, betting on the Kentucky Derby is sort of like partying hard on New Year's Eve. Amateurs love it. The professionals tolerate it (because they make money), and those of us in between typically appreciate it at home with good friends.
After a springtime of rain and thunder in the Bluegrass, the biggest question leading up to the big race was whether Uncle Mo, the undisputed 2-year-old champion, was sound enough again to run for the roses (his worst race--and only defeat--came in his last race, the Wood Memorial in New York exactly four weeks ago). On Thursday, superstar trainer Bob Baffert, the quote-ready, mind-game-playing handler of a Derby horse named Midnight Interlude, even took a poke at Mike Repole, Uncle Mo's energetic owner.
"Uncle Mo looks fantastic out there to me," Baffert said to reporters Thursday (as recounted in the Paulick Report). "He's the best horse in the race. I don't care what rumors you hear. You can't throw him out. He's looked great to me. Everyone is talking about him being 50/50. I think [owner Mike Repole] is just trying to build a price for himself because it sounds like he likes to gamble. He's going to be dangerous. I don't think it's some [gastrointestinal issue], I think he just got tired at the Wood [Memorial]. From what I've seen visually, there is nothing there that tells me the horse isn't ready to run. I'm not buying that crap. He's just trying to steal this race."
So how did Repole respond? First thing Friday morning, he scratched Uncle Mo. Take that, Baffert! But maybe such backstretch edginess, real or perceived, will help drive television and online ratings for the Derby and Friday's running of the Kentucky Oaks, the under-appreciated female edition of Saturday's race. The Oaks is now gloriously partnered with the folks at the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, which accounts in part anyway for the fact that is now the second-highest attended day of racing anywhere in the country. The Oaks has given us, just recently, the magnificant Rachel Alexandra, and Churchill Downs has done a masterful job of raising its profile--"Lillies for the Fillies!--without tarnishing the stature of the following day's festivities.
But I digress. The Atlantic.com's man in Louisville, Nicholas Jackson, already has the right idea. He's picked his horse--Decisive Moment--and seems primed to have a blast at Churchill Downs whether the horse wins or not. I can't wait to read his coming reports. Alas, I will not walk under the Twin Spires this first Saturday in May. But that doesn't mean I can't help. For example, here is how to make a killer Mint Julep (spoiler alert, if you don't have your mint leaves yet it may be too late). And here are four or five "talking points" you can toss up in casual conversation in case you are invited over to a neighbor's house to watch the big race: