Great Odds You'll Love the Kentucky Derby Winner This Year

This week, Churchill Downs will be full of great storylines about the good people and great causes represented at this year's big race.
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Trainer Art Sherman looks at Kentucky Derby entrant California Chrome after a morning workout at Churchill Downs Thursday, May 1, 2014, in Louisville, Ky. (Garry Jones / AP)

An old horseman told me this 40 years ago and I've never forgotten it: To win a big race, a million things have to go right, but to lose a race, just one thing has to go wrong. Now think about that concept exponentially over three different races, in three different states, at three different distances, over just five weeks. For a horse to win a Triple Crown virtually everything has to go right day after day, hour after hour, and minute after minute.

And that's just within the structure of each race. Now consider how the anxiety and tension ratchet up for the connections of the winner of the Kentucky Derby as they approach the Preakness Stakes. Now consider how that stress multiplies and expands should the same lucky and talented horse win the Preakness as well and move on toward the Belmont Stakes. It all tracks another immutable truth about horse racing: The best horse doesn't always win.

Secretariat won in 1973, but what if the famous tooth abscess, the one that derailed him in the Wood Memorial, had occurred just a few weeks later? Affirmed won in 1978—he was the last to do so, and we are now far into the longest span without a Triple Crown winner—but his margin of victory of the great Alydar was reduced in each of the three classic races. He won the Belmont by a nose—less than one of his powerful strides.

I'll Have Another, the last colt to win the first two legs of the series, not only was scratched from the Belmont in 2012 but was retired at the same time. Nineteen horses before him won both the Derby and the Preakness but then failed to win the Belmont. It all makes you wonder not whether any horse ever will do it again but how any horse has done it before. And it makes you want even more to see another Triple Crown winner before you leave for the sweet hereafter.

***

Ah, but this year will be different. I am calling it: I've got the horse right here.* This will be the year. And the horse will be California Chrome, who starts close to the rail from post position 5. With the exception of the late, great Barbaro, this horse has as good a chance to win all three races as any horse has had in the past decade. And, this time, the racing gods will smile down upon an industry suffering from yet another season of discontent. Why not now? Why not him?

There is nothing not to like about California Chrome, who is both an underdog and the favorite. He is commonly bred. Both his sire and his dam could have been purchased for a song. His birth was a dangerous one for his mother. Yet here he is, the 5-2 morning-line favorite, on a four-race winning streak with two of his biggest foes relegated to poor positions Saturday. Here he is, torching the field in the Santa Anita Derby last month, exploding around the final turn:

He's got personality. He mugs for the cameras—and his yawn broadcast on television Wednesday afternoon in the lead-up to the post position draw was priceless. Moreover, his owners, Denise and Perry Martin and Steve and Carolyn Coburn, are precisely the types of earnest, unpretentious, self-deprecating owners that horse racing ought to embrace as it seeks to sustain itself. These folks really could be you or me.  And that's priceless marketing for the sport.

But it gets even better. Chrome's trainer, Art Sherman, age 77, a lifer in the game, brings with him to Louisville this week a story that even Hollywood couldn't produce. As a young man, Sherman served as an exercise rider for another shimmering colt from California, Swaps, who won the 1955 Kentucky Derby. Sherman even slept in the same boxcar as the horse as they both made their way east to Churchill Downs from the Golden State.

***

If this were all this race were about, it would be enough to merit your attention and respect. But this year, more than most years in recent memory, horse after horse in the race brings to the track a wonderful, encouraging story to share. For example, there is Uncle Sigh, who is likely to generate some betting interest Saturday, whose owner, George "Chip" McEwen, donates 10 percent of his entire stable's earnings to the Wounded Warrior program.

There is New England's favorite son, a colt named Wicked Strong, the winner of the Wood Memorial four weeks ago, who also ought to be right there at the end on Saturday. His name was changed from Moyne Spun after the Boston Marathon bombing last year, and a portion of his winnings will be donated to One Fund, set up to support the victims of the attack. (The name "Boston Strong" already had been taken by another farm looking to honor the memory of that day.)

There is the little colt Vicar's In Trouble, with the effervescent Rosie Napravnik aboard, who was purchased for $8,000 but has won $788,000 for his owner, the ubiquitous Ken Ramsey (who has yet another horse in the race named We Miss Artie).

But why could this be Chrome's year? Because Wicked Strong has the furthest outside post, at 20, and Vicar's in Trouble has the further inside post, at 1. The last horse to win from there in a 20-horse field was War Admiral in 1937.

You can't swing a horse without hitting a Todd Pletcher entry in the field—he's got four of them. That's one more than Mike Maker. Bob Baffert has a horse, too, and jockeys Calvin Borel and Gary Stevens (combined age: 98) will leave the gate side-by-side from posts 18 and 19. And then there is "Bronco" Bill Gowen's colt, Ride On Curlin, purchased on the ninth day of an 11-day auction "when the guys with the jets leave and the guys with the cowboy hats and boots come in."

***

So the odds are good that the horse who wins Saturday will be worth rooting for two weeks later at Pimlico. What's less predictable is how the sport is going to deal with the latest wave of discord that has washed over it in these past months. There is the fight over animal cruelty, which broke out in March. There is the fight over the use of race-day medication. There is the fight over the lack of uniformity among regulators who punish those who cheat in the sport.

Some of these fights are old. But what seems new today is the level of commitment from within the industry to do more to fix its obvious problems. For example, a group of high-profile owners and trainers moved last month to raise transparency about the (legal) drugs they give their horses. And one in particular, the controversial Frank Stronach, issued a strong directive for his many tracks that could revolutionize the way the industry operates.

What we may be seeing here—at least what I hope we are seeing here—is the long-delayed expression of pent-up frustration from the many good and honest people in this sport who have stood by for too long and lamented how hard change would be. And if that is the case, if the momentum for reform finally reaches a point of no return, then the entire industry will benefit no matter who wins or who loses on Saturday. This race, to save the sport, is really a race against time.

But as much as we all should demand reform—on integrity, on drug use—all we really want to see between now and dusk on Saturday are safe days of great racing (the Kentucky Oaks, for fillies, on Friday, is often more interesting than the race for the colts). Days when folks can appreciate what's at the core of all of this—and why it's a sport worth fighting for. At the core are these magnificent animals. And, win or lose, when they run, they take your breath away.


* My track record (it's not a cliche when you are actually writing about your record at the track) of picking Derby winners is atrocious. I'm not so bad that you want to automatically rule out my picks but I'm not remotely good enough to be trusted. For what it is worth, the best handicapper I know, New Jersey's own Dan Baer, says that he likes Wicked Strong, Samraat, and Candy Boy with  Chrome. And I wouldn't be surprised if Intense Holiday were close as well. 

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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