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Saturday, May 5, 2007
Updated: May 19, 3:29 PM ET
My Derby Day

By Jay Cronley
Special to ESPN.com

Editor's Note: Jay dropped in during the day on Saturday, May 5, with his observations and musings on the 133rd Kentucky Derby.

6:22 p.m. ET
Derby Highlights ...

The Queen - Saved ground, was resplendent in earth-friendly green.

Safety - Everybody wins.

Post positions - Meant nothing. Place horse was up front. Winner was way back.

Rail bias - Meant everything. First two rode rail.

Beyer speed figures - Covered the tote board.

Blimp - Best shot in sports.

NBC coverage - Pretty much stenciled. Fill in human-interest stories. Walk to paddock. They're off.

Gambling - In the history of horse race coverage on any network, has anybody seen a betting window? A betting ticket? What does TV think those 157,000 people are doing there?

Kenny Mayne finally hits a nice long shot - Asks before race: Is Todd Pletcher tightening up?

Weather - Seems they predict it in Louisville about the way call it most places  early 60 percent chance of rain turns up postcard day.

Celebrities - Red carpet doesn't need to be shampooed; time to call in some current actors.

Calvin Borel - Rode and celebrated with the best.

Evangeline - Fewer to worry about.

4:38 p.m. ET
Expert horse race information comes across the television screen at the rate of about one guess per minute. By mid-afternoon, the handicappers watching ESPN have been tipped on some $5,000 worth of $2 bets. Everybody from Nick Zito to Nick Lachey knows something, or projects that image.

It can be impossible to discount all the expert testimony. It's all about being there, right? It's like a rich kid hitting 50 buckets of golf balls a day. You have to get decent. If you're at all the horse races, if you've seen all the contenders live, if you've eavesdropped in the barns, lunched with the owners, brunched with the trainers, chewed gum with the jockeys, then you have to know something!

A friend of mine has written down all the expert and celebrity picks and has filled the front and back of a sheet of paper. The track is wet. Wait. It just changed again. It's medium dry and still favors rail-runners. Wait. There's dark cloud. It's gone. The track is now moderately dry and faster than a NASCAR oval, and it favors closers suddenly. The most current forecast: a 50 percent chance of any type of weather.

My friend who has gone with the expert picks on TV is down three bills. Plus lunch. Plus a new ball cap. He says one TV expert owes the nation an apology for the lousy early Derby day picks. Another friend is down $200 using pure speed. Another friend is down $100 using closers.

Up-close stalkers were carrying the day.

Some people at our table might have to hit the tricky Derby to break even!

Suddenly, there was a Queen sighting!

There she was at 3:52 Eastern time, memorable in gloaming green, a muted suit highlighted be a red hat ribbon and bow.

One person at our table glanced up briefly, nodded; another merely shrugged; another said hello to Her Majesty without looking up from the Form.

A royal beating trumps a royal greeting.

3:26 p.m. ET
The post parade was more like an equipment check than a warm-up: reins, check; boots, roger.

Silks seemed off-the-rack.

Body language didn't speak volumes. Several horses had loud figures -- big bellies and curves where structure where should have been.

When the gate opened, several contestants seemed to step out, as though testing the water temperature with a toe.

It was approximately the same sport they're playing at Churchill Downs on Derby day, but at different speeds; the same sport, different dreams. Like: Here's hoping I stay on. The plan at places like the one to which I refer can be survive and advance. I'm talking here about a maiden race at Blue Ribbon Downs, a maiden quarter horse race just completed. The only thing this race has in common with Churchill races is that 5-to-1 pays $12, and is usually easier to locate.

Some might consider playing a maiden race at a track where nine people stood at the rail somewhat seedy. But I played it anyhow, yelling and drawing scowling attention from swells around the simulcast hall, there to bet the Derby. I played the 10 horse because, for openers, there was no 11 to bang into it. The outside post can benefit a quick horse.

We won like we were high society, not all the gabbers in hats.

The $5 Exacta paid $100.

Some may not call small-track action racing at its best.

But it can be collecting at its best.

Hitting a relatively easy small-track winner is like getting a grant to bet the Derby.

2:15 p.m. ET
I have just come from a Derby function where I went as the expert handicapper.

The room was full, the possibility of rain having made the prospect of picking a winner less a considered guess and more like a wistful hope.

Confusion was the chief topic, as the rail seemed to be running downhill for the pre-Derby races at Churchill. TV handicappers were missing by leaps and bounds. Most expert pickers loved Street Sense -- the favorite in a 20-horse field, sounds like a granny pick to me.

I was introduced as somebody who had written something that became a horse race flick, and a woman with a mint julep in each hand thought it was "Seabiscuit."

"It wasn't Seabiscuit, it was Let It Ride," I said.

"What is Let It Ride?" she said.

"A movie based on my novel."

"Why haven't I seen it?" she asked.

No response could have kept me out of trouble. So I shrugged. Then a heavy man with a beer hugged me off the ground. He said he had watched "Let It Ride" before the last ten Derbies for motivation.

"And how many did you hit?" the woman asked.

The man reflected back and said softly, "None."

"Lucky me," the woman said.

The first question from the audience was, "Is your movie a jinx?"

The Derby can be like New Year's Eve in broad daylight.

Next, we put together a nine-horse Exacta box. Hardly anybody in the house had ever cashed a Derby ticket. So the plan was to give ourselves the best chance to feel good and hook a payoff over the $144 nine-horse box ticket price.

A show of hands came up with these nine: Curlin, Cowtown Cat, Street Sense, Hard Spun, Great Hunter, Scat Daddy, Circular Quay, Any Given Saturday, and Nobiz Like Showbiz (my win pick).

I called for final questions.

"Can you imagine how depressed we'll be to miss it with nine horses?" a man asked.

I said that I could only see five, no, six, horses that could undo our nine-horse Exacta box.

The party fell quiet. I left unceremoniously.

Write to Jay at jaycronley@yahoo.com.