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Here’s a long shot you never would choose for the Derby

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By Steve Doyle

The road to the Kentucky Derby has been something that I’ve followed rather closely from these past few decades.

From the day of nomination in January, when hundreds of 3-year-olds have been named as potential Derby entrants, I have examined with quiet amazement the experts’ lists of the best horses in that group and those most likely to wear roses one glorious Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.

During the ensuing months, many have bolted out of that projected starting gate – whether because of injury or instinct (see Eskendereya, 2010) – and those early handicapping efforts have seldom held up all the way to Derby Day.

So it is with amusement and a bit of incredulity that I look at the horses who likely will draw starting slots today and be in the gate late Saturday. The heavily favored – and, in my view, strongest – horse won’t be there, and the likely new favorite is coming off a race that he lost. Go figure.

And then there is Line Of David, whose history is both interesting and, to me, ironic.

If you haven’t followed the story, Line Of David was a moderately good horse who surprised a lot of people (see 17-1 odds) to win the Arkansas Derby and a berth here.

The part that gets me is that his horse is owned by a couple from Hattiesburg, Miss., a city where I’ve spent a fair amount of time and not a place I would have expected to find an owner of a Derby horse.

I mean, most of the horses around there are either for riding on trails, pulling plows or being attached to carousels. Most residents wouldn’t know a Thoroughbred if it raced past on U.S. 49.

Line of David was bought in Ocala, Fla., by trainer John Sadler for Ike and Dawn Thrash. They had horses they raced in New Orleans up until Hurricane Katrina, and they had moved their operation to California with Sadler, who also has San Anita Derby-winning Sidney’s Candy, the likely second choice on Saturday.

In my time in Mississippi – about nine years – horse racing was considered to be one of these things: an annual TV event, something you slipped off to New Orleans or Oaklawn to see in person or – by most – the work of the devil himself.

In those days, you couldn’t even bet – legally – away from the track, and most folks were extremely protective of that. For better or worse.

I worked there for a few years for a couple of sister newspapers that employed on their sports staff about 10 products of Kentucky, people either who had been educated (mostly at Western Kentucky) or previously employed in the Bluegrass.

And we did our best to evangelize to those fine Mississippians the opportunities that horse racing could bring to the state, pointing not at Kentucky, Florida or California but simply at Louisiana and Arkansas and to the record of a state muddled in poverty and failing education and needing cash.

But we evangelists heard spirited guffaws and were pushed aside and reminded of the perils of Hell’s fire. There were no amens in our corner.

Never, leaders said, would there be pari-mutuel wagering in Mississippi. No horses. No dogs. No jai-alai.

We are a God-fearing people, they said, and gambling is the devil’s work.

That may well be the case – the devil has cost me a few dollars here and there – but, as you know, their attitude somewhere during these past 30 years changed just a wee bit.

To the credit of those prophets, the state still doesn’t have pari-mutel wagering, but you surely can get a bet down on just about any sport if you visit its casinos in Biloxi and Tunica and various ports along the Gulf Coast and Mississippi River.

For some reason, voters found passages that explained God’s wrath spared casinos and made them legal.

Now I have for years questioned that logic and wondered if when hurricanes Ivan and Dennis veered just east of Mississippi and pillaged the Florida Panhandle if God wasn’t trying to hit the casinos and was just missing wide right, as field-goal kickers in Tallahassee so often have done.

But I digress.

Gambling views aside, the state of Mississippi is this week embracing and celebrating the successes of the Thrashes and their colt. They have told their stories, explained the history and introduced how the Thrashes name their horses after family members.

So don’t be thinking that Line Of David is an homage to the Old Testament King, some sort of bargaining chit. The horse is named for a son-in-law.

The Thrashes are excited, have bought dozens of tickets and I’m sure invested in myriad hats and julep cups. They will be in the owners’ box and likely profiled on television.

All the world will hear how this couple from south Mississippi found their way up the road to Louisville.

And, if by some chance Line Of David does find the roses around his neck Saturday evening, please remember that no matter the odds his nose, there were much greater odds that were cashed that day.

A horse owned by Mississippians won the Kentucky Derby.

Who would’ve bet on that?