As sure as the sun rises in the East, the 3-year-old picture comes into ever-sharper focus come the first of every year.
That’s when 2-year-olds turn three and Derby Fever begins, rising by degrees until it becomes white hot on the first Saturday in May when the Run for the Roses lures 20 sophomores to the starting gate at Churchill Downs.
Seems like all they have to do is open the doors and the storied Louisville track overflows with more than 100,000 revelers, this year on May 3, when the mile and a quarter classic is run for the 140th time.
Seems also like little or no pre-race publicity is necessary to generate world-wide media attention. It’s an enigmatic phenomenon.
“I don’t know if it’s because of how it’s marketed or because everybody knows the Derby,” says private clocker Gary Young, a keen observer on the 3-year-old scene. “And interest has grown even more in the last 10, 15 years. It’s hard to believe 20 years ago, when Brocco ran in it, that there were only 14 starters.
“From now until the end of time there will always be 20 horses in the Derby. Everyone is just infatuated. Why? I don’t know. It’s always been the one race people identify with. Unfortunately, for every horse that makes the Derby there are probably four or five whose careers are shortened or hindered trying to make the race.
“Why the public is infatuated with it, I don’t know, but we should probably be glad that they are infatuated with at least one race.”
With the Run for the Roses just under four months away, a million things can go right or wrong before then. Opinions, however, are never lacking.
“I like (Shug) McGaughey’s horse (Honor Code), especially his stride,” Young said. “When he won the Remsen, it was basically an inconclusive race because it was run like a turf race.
“They just crawled to the top (of the stretch) and those two horses (Honor Code and runner-up Cairo Prince) sprinted home. Honor Code did show guts in coming back and winning the photo, but it wasn’t a normally-run race. It was kind of inconclusive.
“Shared Belief is a nice horse. Midnight Hawk ran to his workouts in the Sham. It was his first route race and he kind of shut it down a little bit, but once it looked like the race might get close again, he took off again.
“Right now, around here, I would imagine most people would have him and Shared Belief No. 1 and No. 2 on their list.”
Asked if it would be in that order, Young said, “I don’t know. That’s a good question.
“I saw Gold Hawk for (Steve) Asmussen break his maiden at Churchill and I saw his one-other-than at Fair Grounds, and he acted like a very nice horse.
“There will be others that come along and others that fall by the wayside. Shared Belief and Honor Code are the shortest prices in Vegas right now. I think both of them are 10-1 (in the Derby Future Book).
“But if you ever see me taking 10-1 before the Derby, call the Twinkie mobile for me. Taking 10-1 four months before the Derby would be a bit ridiculous, but they’d be the two favorites right now.”
Young added that Midnight Hawk was listed at 65-1 before his Sham victory.