Here’s a belated birthday wish to you, our three-year-old
Kentucky Derby hopefuls. Sorry I wasn’t able to send a card or a cake to the
35,000 of you that all turned three on January 1 for the basis of racing.
Instead of such sentimental signs of affections, I’d like to pass along some
thoughts, ideas and warnings as the Road to the Roses finds itself busy with
nomads and knights, alike.
Let’s get the ball rolling with first, an apology. This is for
the three-year-old phenom, who bursts on the scene with a triple-digit speed
figure going a route of ground in a maiden victory or shows a strong, out of
character finish in one of the early Derby preps.
I’m sorry, but fans, pundits, owners and/or trainers so
quickly forget how hard it is to keep a maturing horse healthy, as it
skyrockets from the maiden ranks to stakes winner. The Kentucky Derby is no
place for a fast riser. So sorry, first, that you were even considered for such
a grueling racing schedule and secondly, even if you get to the Derby starting
gates you’re likely to either be hurt or just completely overmatched. A horse
like Curlin comes through once in a lifetime, but the Derby past performances
are littered with also rans like Daddy Nose Best or Watch Me Go who come and go
like unwrapped candy – sweetly anticipated, but quickly forgotten.
For the fastest of the fastest, the 400 or so that will be
nominated to the Triple Crown, I wish you good health. Any setbacks along the
way like bowed tendons, throat surgeries, muscle pulls, fevers, etc. spell
almost automatic disaster. Those human connections holding the rare commodity
akin to lightning in bottle aren’t going to be as patient with each passing day closing in on the first Saturday
in May. Less time, more pressure, the chance of injury jumps exponentially –
good luck and good health, indeed.
While the Bayou is a crazy fun place to visit and then leave
with your heart and soul intact, it is really no place to prep for the Derby.
There has almost been no impact felt from Fair Ground faithfuls going north to
Churchill except for Grindstone winning in 1996, Hard Spun’s second in 2007 and
Nehro’s close second in 2011 – that’s not much. I hope you’re wintering in Arkansas,
California or Florida, where many more winners have come from lately.
Way too many of you just aren’t good enough to win one of
the Kentucky Derby preps along the way. It’s really not your fault. It could be
breeding, the fact that you matured faster than your mates, and now, they have
caught up or just plain old Derby Fever that I have described above. Most of
you that survive the grind will compete at more moderate distances from six to
eight furlongs – places you can excel and be your very best – or return to
greener pastures on the turf. I look forward to seeing you then and there.
There’s nothing wrong with winning the Woody Stephens Stakes at seven furlongs
on the undercard for Belmont Stakes Day or some other stakes race along the
Finally, to you the superstar blessed with talent, genes,
brains, and the just-right rider, trainer and owner, I give thanks. It is you
our lonely Horse Racing Nation turns its collective eyes to – dreaming, hoping
that you’ll be the one:
to save The Sport of Kings supported by legions
of two-dollar bettors
to electrify those eight to eighty and turn them
on to our wonderfully, frustrating sport
to find yourself on the cover of Time, Sports
Illustrated and even the nightly news
It’s a tall order, really. Not fair, really to the be the
one and only that started out sometime ago in a grassy field, barely standing
before breaking into a trot, gallop and run. Of the 35,000, you’ll be dissected
and dismissed along with catching adulation and admiration.
Many of us humans will want to be the first to “discover”
you or write about you in the electronic stratosphere. Our human motives based
on pride, prejudice and opinion are grounded in the real world. It will pale in
comparison to your winged flight; your name shouted through the Churchill
In the end, blanketed by roses, you job will be complete.
The two-legged creatures we’ll expect so much more, but that is not of your
concern. If you return sound, we’ll see you at the three-ring circus in
Baltimore and cross our fingers for a New York City triumph. It’s only been 35
years since our last Triple Crown champ.
On this cold January night I bid you good night and good
luck. You’ll need it.
By Tony Bada Bing