22,000 pounds of trouble
Updated: April 9, 2012, 4:07 PM ETBy Jay Cronley | Special to ESPN.com
It's never too early to complain about the size of the Kentucky Derby field, 20 horses, a few of whom know how to run correctly.That's because there's no aberration like it in all of sport. The Derby, with its Light Brigade start, is its own game. Horses proceed from running against plugs in slot-fortified stakes races in places like New Mexico, and from running against five-horse fields in LA and six-horse fields in New York, to something that looks like the opening of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. The start of the Derby deserves a signature call of its own, something more than "They're off," something that ends in "Amen," something like, "School's out kids," or "The breeding shed is open for business." A field of 20 horses that leaves from a gate and doesn't leap hedges and fences is so bizarre as to make comparisons with other acts of daring-do difficult. Comparing all the racing that has come before the Derby is like comparing apples and punching bags. A 20-horse field going a mile and a quarter for the first time would be like: -- Holding the Masters without caddies
-- Tennis in slacks
-- Polo with a golf ball
-- Penalties for cussing in the NFL
The 20-horse Derby field lets in owners who should be eating hot dogs at Beulah Park in Ohio. Few of the half-dozen or more undeserving horses racing in the Derby are ever heard from again. You say you had a horse in the Derby? So did around 200 others last decade. And after the two recent public relations stinkers, the "Luck" nightmare on HBO when several animals died in the name of art, and the recent New York Times expose that uncovered dangerous racing in the sticks, the last thing horse racing needs is a big, fat scrum. There will probably be enough PETA members watching the Derby to raise the already great T.V. ratings a full point. The size of the field makes handicapping a running style essential. Drawing the rail at the Kentucky Derby is like drawing two cards to a flush. No horse in the number one spot has won the Derby in 25 years. The animal relegated to that post position would be better off trotting on to Baltimore. The strategy from the rail is to go as fast as you can to avoid the rail just ahead, and try to hang on for 11th, or to drop to last and run late and close for ninth. Stalkers, horses with tactical speed, which is to say horses quick enough to avoid 76 flying hoofs and have something in reserve, usually win the Derby. Union Rags will be the favorite the first Saturday in May, making his 7-1 first futures pool price look fat. His problem has to do with running straight. He appears to find it boring. One erratic race is the way these things sometimes go. Two off-course journeys make a person wonder. Three, the 7-1 number looks about right. Creative cause got in trouble in what amounted to little more than a match race. Hansen has changed his running style for the better, leaving the lead for the suckers. Gemologist seems to find running just fast enough amusing. Alpha was the best horse running over the weekend, finishing second to the 'Gem' after almost being checked into the boards like a hockey player, and losing four or five lengths. The gigantic Derby field will benefit the professional handicappers, most of whom will be able to say again: "You expected me to pick a winner out of a 20-horse field?" Field of dreams, traffic, luck, they'll wait-list it. Write to Jay at email@example.com.