This time of year comes along and I simply cannot help myself.
Here’s how it works. I watch races all the time. Countless days and nights studying horses, finding contenders, eliminating pretenders, all the while stubbornly defying odds.
1991 was the last Kentucky Derby winner I picked. Strike The Gold was his name.
1991. I’ll let you think about that for a moment. Long time, isn’t it?
That’s 20 Derbies come and gone.
I’ve had 3 second-place finishers, 3 third-place finishers in those 20 years.
In 2003, there was Peace Rules, leading the field at the head of the stretch. He was gonna take me to Aruba that day.
Instead, it was a quiet ride home muttering to myself about how New York-bred geldings can’t win the Derby. Funny Cide? Really?
The rest? Don’t ask. It’s neither pretty nor polite to bring up the past. Ask any of your ex’s and they’ll confirm that.
So now comes the temptation. I’ve got a horse. I love this one. I’m so enamored with my early selection for the Kentucky Derby that I’m almost giddy about his chances. With 68 days to go before they even load the field into the starting gate on that first Saturday in May, I’m already standing in the winners circle at Churchill Downs.
I’ve been shining a massive spotlight on El Padrino for a couple months. I needed only slight confirmation, and this past weekend, I got exactly that when the son of Pulpit dueled to the finish line to gamely win the Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds in Bossier City, La.
So I’m all set. Right? No questions. No worries. No fuss. I’ve got my horse right here, his name is El Padrino. (It doesn’t rhyme, but that’s not important, I’m telling a story.)
There’s just one little problem.
It’s not that Pletcher’s a bad man. I’m sure he’s a great guy.
Heckuva horse trainer too. He’s got the trophies, the awards, the money that comes with being among the very best in the business.
He’s even won the Kentucky Derby before. Super Saver. 2010.
My pick that year? I told you already. Never look back.
Problem with Pletcher is not the success he has had in the Derby. It’s the myriad of other horses that seem to encounter “issues” along the way.
Prior to and even after Super Saver -- and also on the same day as that one’s mild upset victory in the Run for the Roses -- Pletcher-trained 3-year-olds may as well have been running towards the Bermuda Triangle as opposed to the backstretch at 700 Central Ave. in Louisville, Ky.
A brief history of Pletcher’s misfortunes on the road to the Derby.
2011 -- Uncle Mo, the morning-line favorite for the race, scratches the day before the Derby with a mysterious illness that scores of veterinarians took weeks to diagnose.
2010 -- Eskendereya, considered the early favorite before post positions were drawn for the race, and coming off huge wins in the Fountain of Youth and Wood Memorial Stakes, comes down with a minor injury and is ruled out.
Prior to 2010, Pletcher’s runners in the Kentucky Derby were 0-for-24.
Twenty-one of them ran off the board.
Five of them finished last.
But that was before Super Saver.
That was before the big win -- the proverbial monkey off his back, if you will.
There’s no questioning Pletcher’s place amongst the best in the sport.
He’s won all the great races. His achievements are remarkable and impossible to deny.
There are questions though that still remain.
Was Super Saver a fluke? He would run only twice more after his Derby win, and never won again.
By using those same standards that so casually confirm Mine That Bird’s Derby win to be a fluke -- he also never won again after his monumental upset Derby win just one year prior -- one also has to use that same logic on Super Saver, despite what some blue-bloods in the industry will callously refer to as an obvious difference in the “human connections.”
That’s a whole other column right there.
So that’s where I stand right now with El Padrino.
I’m ready to buy in. That ticket is just waiting to be cashed.
21 years of frustration and I’m ready to be released from that little corner in the dark, padded room.
Don’t screw this one up, Todd. I’m counting on you.
Random: Before any of us in the Land of Enchantment make too big a deal out of Isn’t He Clever’s daylight score in the Borderland Derby last weekend at Sunland Park, please remember that he got drubbed by some of the better horses in Southern California prior to this most recent win over a track he adores.
I have no problem backing Isn’t He Clever over this same course in next month’s Grade 3 Sunland Derby, if in fact he finds a soft bunch of rivals in that spot. If something -- anything with a pulse -- comes to El Paso with some out of state credentials for that race, however, I’ll be salivating at a chance to beat I’ll Be Clever when he has to face some real competition.
The updated Top 10 List:
1) EL PADRINO -- Great win in the Risen Star this past weekend. Next start unknown.
2) ALPHA -- Ranked Number 1 just two weeks ago, he will need to move mountains now to reclaim the top spot.
3) UNION RAGS -- Dominated his rivals in Sunday’s Fountain of Youth. That was something special.
4) HANSEN -- Sitting pretty as he makes his next start this weekend in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct in New York. Will need to get his manners in order at the starting gate.
5) FED BIZ -- Bob Baffert trainee running out of time to make an impact, but still has all the buzz off his win last time out at Santa Anita.
6) SECRET CIRCLE -- Debuts on the list for Baffert after a solid score in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park.
7) GEMOLOGIST -- Holding his position while we await his seasonal debut in the next couple weeks.
8) OUT OF BOUNDS -- Sham Stakes winner at Santa Anita was flattered when Secret Circle (above) came back to win. Jury still out on him.
9) MOTOR CITY -- Headed to the Tampa Bay Derby in two weeks. Will keep him in the back of our minds until then.
10) CREATIVE CAUSE -- Hanging on by a thread after a very average performance at Santa Anita recently.
ALGORITHMS falls out of the Top 10 after his late scratch in Sunday’s Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park. If he resurfaces with a winning effort, he’ll get back on the list.
Good luck at the races.