An atypical approach to the Derby

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Yes, it's Derby week, which means, of course, we have to begin with reining.

By Steve Doyle

Here are your typical preparations during Derby Week: Complete your wardrobe for the day, study the listings of horses that are in the newspaper, identify which one Calvin Borel is riding (that would be Revolutionary) or which one Todd Pletcher is training (that would be 25 percent of the projected field), wait until Saturday to see which horse looks nicest in the paddock or has the most emotional storyline, place your wager.

Here are a journalist’s preparations during Derby Week: He or she goes to the backside of Churchill Downs before sunup every morning this week, watches the horses run, checks the times for the quarter mile, half mile and mile – and other fractions of those – and interviews the trainers, jockeys, grooms, owners, spouses of all of those and the person who shovels out the barn every morning. Then he or she makes a prediction that appears for millions to consume and use as a barometer on Saturday.

Here’s how I’ve prepared for this year’s Derby: I’ve watched horses compete that have absolutely nothing to do with the goings-in in Downtown Louisville.

Before we retire today I will give you my Derby picks, something I never have published at any point in my decades-long career (as nearly as I can recall).

But first you have to understand what I know about horses: not much, at least about the athletic ones. I know how to take care of the handful we have at Dozen Acres Farm, who can eat like champions and occasionally gallop up the hill toward the barn to do so. I don’t know their times in those gallops – should I say breezes? – but they do cover that furlong pretty quickly.

Certainly I have read about the Derby horses, have watched a couple of races and understand some of the nuances of what is expected to occur on Saturday. But I’ve been far less of a student than you or many of my colleagues in this profession. The Derby is fun for me and not a vocation.

That’s why on Friday, the day before Churchill Downs opened its spring meet, I drove in the opposite direction, to Lexington, to watch some beautiful and athletic horses do all sorts of amazing things during the Kentucky Reining Cup, the all-American aspect of the annual 3-day equestrian competition at the Kentucky Horse Park.

I first became interested in reining – not a staple of the horsescape in Shelby County or even our state – when I attended the World Equestrian Games in 2010. I have met casually a couple of competitors, and I can tell you the names of the top handful of riders, which are far more resonant than the names of their horses.

Perhaps I’m attracted to this sport because it is Western in origins and its horse competitors resemble those Palominos and Duns and Pintos I watched Roy and Gene and Hoss and Little Joe ride. The competitors are almost exclusively Quarter Horses, bred in a variety of incredible colors and patterns, much different from the tamer range of shades among Thoroughbreds.

These horses are also much more similar to those that stand in our paddocks and eat our grass back on the farm. They appear to have a wonderful and embraceable familiarity, as opposed to those sometimes feisty, biting and cantankerous racers and show horses.

Now, to be sure Quarter Horses can run fast for a quarter of a mile (hence their name), but they are in no way the majestic steeds we see around every corner. They are beautiful and attentive, but they are adorned with fancy saddles, glittering tack and riders who have never been confused with jockeys, given that some of them weigh as much as two jockeys.

But these horses compete, and they compete hard, and their event lasts longer than 2 minutes. Yes, the winners are determined by judges – I typically despise any sport decided by a judge and not the competitors – but even amateur eyes can decipher those that do the tightest, fastest turns, the riders that are quietest in the saddle and smoothest in getting the horse to change leads on the run and then which horses that can dash and stop in the quickest and most stable slide.

Watching them compete at the horse park on Friday did get me in the mood for the Derby, because I have become increasingly studious of the horses and their makeup, trying to note their confirmation and personality along with my eternal habit of checking their lineage, their track record and the name itself (I mean, does a horse named Orb sound embraceable enough to support with hard-earned cash?).

All of which brings us to the starting gate for the Derby.

In the spirit of the 40th anniversary of the fabulous Secretariat’s remarkable run, here is how I see the race unfolding on Saturday (post positions and final lineup notwithstanding):

Calvin Borel will take Revolutionary to the rail and be among the top three. Goldencents will carry Rick Pitino’s run of luck into the mix as well, and Verrazano will fade at the finish and out of its glorified points-race perch.

But that leaves me with this: D. Wayne Lukas, Calumet Farms and Gary Stevens. Together they have won more than 10 percent of all Derbies. Two of those three are older than I, and the jockey isn’t far behind.

So I will take Oxbow, because I believe that there is sometimes a marriage of opportunity and talent that decides such competitive events. Stevens will return triumphant, nosing out Borel at the end.

At least, that’s the case unless one of them decides to sit and spin along the way.