She's a Handicapper now..and I'm saying "Champagne, Anyone?"

She's a Handicapper now..and I'm saying "Champagne, Anyone?"

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Road to the Derby

I'm coming out early this year with my Derby horses this year. This is a departure from my normal "wait and see", checking out the prep races, doing mind-numbing stat-checking and reading all the experts' prognostications. The previous strategy hasn't done very well for me over the last several years. I briefly looked at I'll Have Another and dismissed him. Animal Kingdom never entered into my final five. Street Sense, Smarty Jones and Barbaro were horses I liked early recent years, so I'm going back to the old playbook.

Verazzano, GoldenCents and Itsmyluckyday.

There you have it. My top three.

I absolutely love the way Verazzano has won his last two races. A strong stretch runner, which will bode him well at Churchill. The way he crushed a good field at Gulfstream sold me. 20 lengths and was under a hand ride from the 1/8th pole in. If horses were rock stars, this would be Bruce Springsteen. He's the boss, the bomb. I've seen two horses I'll mention who dominated in this fashion early in the 3-yr old campaign that I can remember who left a similiar impression on me. Hansen and Arazi. Neither won the Derby. That's the only thing that worries me. Everything else is all good and he's my top pick.

GoldenCents is impressive as well. Although he looked to fade a bit in his last win as he hit the wire, I attribute that to trainer instructions and the jockey...Kevin Krigger. I hope that Doug O'Neill puts someone on this horse besides "the Krig". He's not one of my favorite riders. A Rick Pitino owned horse, I was in the Gold Room at Churchill Downs when GoldenCents won his last race. So was was Pitino. I asked Rick, after congratulating him on the win, if they were going to stay with K.K. on board. He said yes. I hope it doesn't comeback to bite him.

Itsmyluckyday. A driving win to knock off Shanghai Bobby and setting a track record in the HolyBull Stakes. Showing good foot in the final 1/16th to pull off a big upset. It's  a long, long stretch at Churchill Downs. Speed can fade. I'll never forget my excitement a few years ago when Noble's Promise loomed menacingly at the top of stretch and looked like he was ready to pull past the field. Sadly, he didn't have the finishing kick. A case of a horse that excelled in a mile or shorter, in his prime. Itsmyluckyday seems capable of getting a mile and a quarter. Whether he'll be able to gain on Verazzano or GoldenCents...who knows?

There is a lot of racing to be ran before the first Saturday in May. There will be injuries, up-start contenders, injuries, feel-good stories galore and media hype. Wise guy picks and longshot, upset selections. There always are, there always will be.

My favorite Derby story is from over 30 years ago. I was still living in Indianapolis but planned on returning to Louisville for Derby Week. Ready to hook up with friends and hit Thursday thru Saturday racing at Churchill. Crashing with the parents for a week, the prodigal son returning with a racing form tucked under his arm...driving the worst car ever made...the infamous Chevrolet Chevette. I hit them hard at Churchill that Thursday. Walked out of there over $400 to the good and didn't roll back into the parents' house until the sun was starting to peek over the eastern horizon. A few hours sleep and back at it. An average Friday...maybe broke even, but after expenses and a great night walking the Central Avenue with a few friends and partying until 2 a.m...I came back to the hose down about $100. I slept in and wasn't ready to head to the Churchill Downs infield until almost noon. My mom stopped me as I was headed out the back door. She wanted to give me money for a Derby bet. She has been watching Derby Day coverage and heard that there was a horse named Gato Del Sol running. Translated from Spanish to English, this was Cat of the Sun.

We had a Siamese cat named Lotus who liked to lay on a front window sill on sunny days and soak up the sun. This was Mom's "Sun Cat" I checked the paper. The horse was 20-1. I told her she didn need to give me any money. I'd put $2 to win on it for me...on me. She frowned. She went to her purse and handed me a $10 with instructions to put $5 to win and $5 to place. I promised I would and took off.

I was pretty well lit after a few hours in the infield Derby Day. Ran into a few old frat brothers out there and the Jim Beam was flowing. I was having a rough wagering day and decided to hold off on any further wagering until the Derby race. I got in line to bet it, and the lines were going very, very they do in the infield on Derby Day. I liked Air Forbes Won in the 1982 Kentucky Derby and planned on betting him $20 across the board. Finally, with precious few minutes left, I reached the teller's window. I placed my wager. I had started to turn and go when I remembered Mom's bet. I checked the money in my pocket. I had a $50 and some loose change. I told the teller to give me $20 to win and $20 to place on Gato Del Sol. I then headed off to the nearest beer stand and the race started while I was in line. I had $200 in my wallet and a buzz on.

Mike Battaglia was calling the race and he's hard to understand to begin with. With a roaring infield crowd, I was catching only bits and pieces of the call. But I did hear Air Forbes Won called throughout the race. Air Forbes Won took the lead at the top of the stretch and I was ecstatic.

Then, fate changed. The words Gato Del Sol started flowing from Battaglia's lips. At the wire, the Sun Cat had outshone them all and had won the Kentucky Derby. Air Forbes Won faded to a dismal 7th.

$44.20 on a $2 win ticket. $19.60 on a $2 place ticket. I had that...10X.

I waited awhile before hitting the window. I calmly remained in line for my beers, got two of them and headed over and sat down in the grass near the restrooms. Watching the scene. Amazed, shocked and bombed. Finally, I went to the window. The teller ran the tickets and smiled broadly.

"Good for you, sir!" she laughed and counted out $638. I slid $38 back at her. I'd been going to her window all day. Always tip those who serve you.

I left then. Rolling with the masses through the tunnel, several blocks to the car and sitting in traffic. Normal post-Derby stuff. When I arrived home that night, after stopping off and "hoisting a few" at a bar where a buddy worked, Mom was still up. I smiled broadly and handed her eight $20 bills...roughly her share of the win.

"How did you do on the race?" she finally asked after her excitement waned.

"I got sunburned," I flashed the $600 something left in my wallet.

Good times.

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