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“It's highly contagious, this fever. Presidents, princes, sheikhs, entertainers, movie stars, writers, millionaires and billionaires have all caught it. The great John Steinbeck described the Kentucky Derby as "one of the most beautiful and violent and satisfying things" he had ever experienced. After his Jaklin Klugman finished third in the 1980 Kentucky Derby, the popular actor Jack Klugman said, as quoted in Jim Bolus' "Kentucky Derby Stories": "That was the greatest two minutes I ever spent in my life." Not even the great John Wayne was immune. In 1976, the Duke attended the Kentucky Derby and participated in the festivities as grand marshal of the Pegasus Parade. And despite having what was reported to be a losing day at the windows, he so enjoyed his Derby experience that he insisted on paying his own expenses for the visit. "That would be the greatest thrill of my life," said Paul Hornung, a Louisville native, about the possibility of winning this year's 139th run for the famed roses. As a member of a partnership, Hornung owns Titletown Five, a lightly raced colt who's aimed at the Triple Crown and, more immediately, at Saturday's Louisiana Derby in New Orleans. Playing for Notre Dame, Hornung won the 1956 Heisman Trophy, and during his long career with Green Bay, the Packers won four NFL titles and a Super Bowl. In 1961, on his way to football's Hall of Fame, Hornung was named the league's MVP. But if Titletown Five wins the Kentucky Derby, and Hornung has the opportunity to walk into the Churchill Downs winner's circle and thank, he said, the people of his hometown, then May 4 will be the greatest day of his life. That's Derby fever. Last October at Churchill Downs, Titletown Five won in a romp, by nine lengths, with a performance that suggested he could be among the most talented horses of his generation. But he exited the race with a chipped knee that put him on the sideline. He recently returned to competition with a runner-up finish in a minor stakes at Oaklawn Park, but, still, except for talent he's shy of everything he needs for a roseate run. Just earning the points necessary to get into the Derby would seem for him unlikely, the stuff of dreams, really. But, then again, Derby fever inspires dreams, sleepless and relentless and recurring dreams, the sort that Hornung said he's having these days. "I've got Derby fever every year, whether I have a horse or not," said Jack Wolf, one of the managing partners of Starlight Racing -- the partnership that owns Shanghai Bobby, the champion juvenile of 2012 who'll be one of the favorites in Saturday's Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. Last year, Starlight had Algorithms aimed at the Triple Crown, and after he won the Holy Bull Stakes by five lengths in a superlative performance, he briefly became the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby. But an injury forced the unbeaten colt to miss the Florida Derby and, eventually, into retirement. "I was sort of numb when it happened," Wolf said, "but looking back at it now, I'm even more impressed with just how good he was and how fortunate we were to have a horse like him." No telling, Wolf said, how good Algorithms might have been. And if momentous affairs that seem to invite a convergence of fate and fortune and destiny are in the hands of some power or deity beyond understanding, as often seems the case, then, well, perhaps that power or deity will smile on Shanghai Bobby, or at least that's the feverish perspective. Many years ago, the great Red Smith told a story about an Iowa farmer who suddenly showed up at Churchill Downs with a horse for the Kentucky Derby. The horse had never raced, but the farmer had clocked this lightning bolt through many snow-blanketed pastures and figured there must be a roseate blanket in the horse's future. The farmer had Derby fever. Churchill officials persuaded him not to enter. They were not so lucky, however, in 1979 with the connections of Great Redeemer. They had Derby fever, a bad case. And so Great Redeemer, who was still a maiden after six outings, ran in the Kentucky Derby, although "ran" here is used in the most liberal sense. Somewhat shockingly, he was only 78-1. He finished last, of course, about 50 lengths or so behind Spectacular Bid. In fact, Great Redeemer finished so far behind the next-to-last horse, Lot o' Gold, that photographers already had rushed onto the track by the time the caboose arrived at the station. And so it's important, even essential, that some people remain immune to Derby fever. It can lead not only to embarrassment and humiliation, but can also encourage owners and trainers to enter horses that, for their own health and well-being, would be better employed elsewhere. Jack Price was immune. Even though he had the Derby favorite in his barn, the trainer and breeder of Carry Back never caught the fever. Back in 1961, just days before Carry Back won the Derby, Price annoyed many people and probably angered more than a few when, somewhat jokingly perhaps, he described the Kentucky Derby as "the seventh race at Churchill Downs." But such perspective can be valuable, especially as the Derby approaches and springtime arrives. Trainer Al Stall Jr. provided some perspective this year when he didn't even nominate Departing and Sunbean to the Triple Crown -- not initially, anyway.
That would be the greatest thrill of my life.” -- NFL Hall of Famer Paul Hornung on winning the Kentucky Derby