Nicholas Godfrey on the Kentucky Derby

International racing expert Nicholas Godfrey puts America’s greatest race, Saturday’s $3 million Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, under the spotlight.

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AHEAD of the 145th edition of the Kentucky Derby, which will be live on Sky Sports Racing on Saturday, it is worth reminding ourselves precisely why America’s greatest race Is billed as “the most exciting two minutes in sports”.

Not that it takes much explaining, however. Imagine a cross between the Epsom Derby, on which it was modelled in the 19th century, and the Grand National – plus a bit of Melbourne Cup thrown in for good measure – and you’re probably getting there.

That said, America’s greatest race, as old as the historic racetrack at which it is staged, is like no other. Don’t even think about the Breeders’ Cup, which may attract greater interest in Europe but frankly bears no comparison whatsoever with the storied contest at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

With a history dating back to 1875 uninterrupted by two world wars and the Great Depression, the longest continuously held sporting event in the United States really does stand on its own as a truly unique occasion.

A veritable litany of legendary names feature on a stellar roll of honour, headed by true greats who went on to complete the Triple Crown like Gallant Fox, Whirlaway, Citation and Secretariat – whose track record is still standing 46 years after his superlative display – via Seattle Slew and Affirmed up to Bob Baffert’s modern-era heroes American Pharoah and Justify.

And those are just the Triple Crown winners, of which there are 13 altogether. But let’s not ignore some of the others, like Spectacular Bid, Barbaro and Smarty Jones, or even the unheralded Mine That Bird, who earned instant fame with his 50-1 success in 2009. Household names all of them, their fame granted instantly by victory in the Kentucky Derby, which is nothing short of an institution.

Not only does the ‘Run for the Roses’, so called for the floral blanket traditionally draped across the winner’s shoulders, feature the best three-year-old dirt horses in the world, it is the only time horse racing truly penetrates the wider public consciousness in the United States. That’s probably why the $3 million contest is also known as ‘America’s race’. Well over 150,000 people will be at Churchill Downs on Saturday, while only during the Super Bowl are TV adverts said to cost more.

And even if it is very much an American institution, there can be few more iconic sights in the entire racing world than the famous twin spires, while the event’s many and varied traditions have long been part of the folklore of the sport, among them the ubiquitous mint julep, the sickly bourbon-based concoction that is the Derby’s signature tipple, as much a custom as My Old Kentucky Home, the antebellum slaves’ song that fulfils the role of Derby hymn.

A mass singalong minutes before the race is always a surprisingly moving experience, while the annual ‘Derby walkover’ as the 20 runners – unsaddled, as nature intended, albeit surrounded by connections and other hangers-on – are led from the backstretch barn complex via the clubhouse turn into the saddling boxes is another celebrated ritual.

Louisville, the city in which Churchill Downs is located, is synonymous with its showpiece occasion in a way that exceeds even Melbourne’s focus on its race that stops a nation. The Derby is preceded annually by a festival that dominates the city for the two weeks prior to the race starting with ‘Thunder Over Louisville’, an annual airshow and fireworks display that signals the beginning of celebrations in earnest.

The expansive backstretch barn complex at Churchill Downs is in danger of bursting at the seams during Derby week when excitement both on and off the track grows tangibly the nearer the race comes.

After the Great Steamboat Race down the Ohio River on the Wednesday featuring a pair of lumbering paddle steamers, the city is overflowing with revellers from Thursday to Sunday, with the central Fourth Street Live! entertainment district the obvious focus for a drunken jamboree. Hotel prices are hiked up out of all recognition.

The racetrack itself is completely rammed on both Oaks Friday and Derby Saturday. The record crowd for the Derby itself came in 2015 when American Pharoah claimed the first leg of his Triple Crown in front of 179,513 people.

A large proportion of the massive crowd will be denizens of the infield, a $25-a-head enclosure instituted in the 1960s to accommodate the great unwashed. According to author John Jeremiah Sullivan in his excellent memoir Blood Horses, the infield is “a wonderful place to see a certain kind of Kentucky face, one made obsolete in other parts of the world by dentistry and nutritional guidelines”. On the other side of the track, literally speaking, standing six storeys high is the vast main stand with its celebrity patrons in Millionaires Row, seersucker suits and posh frocks aplenty.

Amid all the partying and pageantry comes America’s premier Classic, the number one dirt race on the planet for three-year-olds – and also a law unto itself. Given that no other race on the US calendar has as many as 20 runners, hard-luck stories are almost inevitable as they helter-skelter around the oval circuit. Moreover, none of the Derby field – well, none of the US contenders, anyway, which is nearly all of them – will ever have run the mile-and-a-quarter distance before, so stamina can assume a vital significance.

Following the last-minute injury to favourite Omaha Beach, this weekend’s race sees five-time winner Baffert yet again in pole position thanks to a trio of heavily fancied runners in last year’s juvenile champion Game Winner and his stablemates Roadster and Improbable. They are now the first three in the betting.

Among those most likely to upset the Baffert applecart is Tacitus, representing Cigar's trainer Bill Mott, bidding to fill a glaring omission on his CV with a first Derby success. Mott also saddles Country House, while the front-running Jason Servis-trained colt Maximum Security bids to stretch his unbeaten sequence, presumably via another all-the-way effort.

But it is a tough task to make all in the Kentucky Derby, but then again, nobody ever said it was gonna be easy. What else should you expect when a place in the equine pantheon is on the line?

DRAMATIC DERBIES PAST: SIX MEMORABLE EDITIONS AMONG MANY

1933 BROKER’S TIP

A wonderful slice of racing history captured on sepia-tinted newsreel (minus sound) with a final-furlong battle between Broker’s Tip and Head Play, whose jockeys can clearly be seen climbing all over each other in an anything-goes rough house of a race.

1957 IRON LIEGE

Another black-and-whiter, in which none other than the great Bill Shoemaker misjudged the winning post and stood up too early to celebrate victory on Gallant Man, handing the win to Iron Liege.

1973 SECRETARIAT

A legend was born as ‘Big Red’ broke the two-minute barrier with a track record (1m59.4s) that is still standing. Remarkably, he ran a complete set of negative splits, going faster each successive quarter-mile. Such was the merit of Secretariat’s performance that well-beaten runner-up Sham also broke the old stakes record.

2006 BARBARO

Anyone who witnessed this 6 1/2-length demolition job at Churchill Downs has every right to believe Barbaro might have ended up winning a Triple Crown but for the (eventually fatal) injury he sustained in the Preakness. His doomed fight for recovery captured the hearts of a nation; the colt’s statue stands outside the main gates.

2009 MINE THAT BIRD

One of the most unlikely winners in Kentucky Derby history, Mine That Bird came in from the boondocks in New Mexico for unknown trainer Chip Woolley – who became famous for his cowboy hat and handlebar moustache – to score a shock 50-1 last-to-first success under Calvin Borel, nicknamed ‘Bo-Rail’ owing to his fondness for scraping the paint. You have to feel sorry for legendary racecaller Tom Durkin, who did not even notice Borel smuggling him through until the race was almost done. He won by 6 3/4 lengths, the longest winning margin for over 60 years; not far off a fairytale, that they made a movie out of it.

2015 AMERICAN PHAROAH

The Triple Crown drought had lasted 37 years since Affirmed in 1978 – before Bob Baffert’s brilliant colt set matters right with his Classic sweep. It all started here.


Nicholas Godfrey on the Kentucky Derby
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