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In defense of Derby Fever

4/30/2013
Connections of Charming Kitten hope their colt can prove he belongs in Saturday's Kentucky Derby. Getty Images

In the midst of the circus-like atmosphere that is Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby week, there are horses who are hot and horses who are not. The nots are often nodded to in sympathy.

"Why are they even entered?" and "His owner clearly has Derby Fever" are muttered every time they make an appearance on the track. Cameras focus on the big names, the media scrum chases after the connections of favorites and the dance continues.

But today I am arguing in favor of the have-nots, because if I had a horse that was sound, fit, and qualified for the Derby, I would run him too.

Let me explain why.

One of the main reasons we as spectators love sports is the underdog. If the Yankees or Patriots or Derby favorites won every year, no one would be pleased. Not even the fans of the winners, really. Winning has value because it is supposed to be hard. Not everyone can do it.

There is no doubt that winning the Kentucky Derby is a challenge. You can't buy your way into the famed winner's circle, and no matter how good your horse is, it only gets one shot. Spending $16 million on a purchase (which has happened) no more guarantees you a blanket of roses on the first Saturday in May than a $1,500 one does.

In 2010, there were 25,808 Thoroughbred foals registered in the United States. Only 20 of them will get the chance to run this Saturday. For fans of math, that means 0.077% of the foal crop has qualified for a chance at history.

When Mine That Bird crossed the wire in front in 2009, to say that the crowd was stunned would be an understatement.


Even the horses that "have no chance" of winning are most likely significantly more talented than most of their peers. And you can't win if you don't run.

Imagine this past March if during the NCAA basketball tournament, Florida Gulf Coast had turned down the chance to play in the Sweet 16 simply because no 15-seed had ever made it that far before. Everyone knew the Cinderella run would most likely end with a loss, but the school had every right to be there and every right to try.

That happens in the Kentucky Derby too. In the past five runnings, long shots have actually done better than the favorites. In reverse order, the winner's odds were as follows: I'll Have Another (15-1), Animal Kingdom (20-1), Super Saver (8-1), Mine That Bird (50-1) and Big Brown (2-1).

The experts and the betting public basically dismissed three of those horses, only to be caught flat-footed after the race.

When Mine That Bird crossed the wire in front in 2009, to say that the crowd was stunned would be an understatement. He would go on to finish second in the Preakness behind eventual Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and third in the Belmont behind Summer Bird.

That is a Triple Crown race record most would give anything to be able to boast about, but if you had asked about the horse in the hours leading up the race, most would have said, "Mine That Who?"

"We wanted to be competitive, and we knew we would be more competitive than everybody gave us credit for," said trainer Chip Woolley after the victory.

If you are wondering if he was a fluke, another 50-1 shot named Giacomo took the race in 2005. He was owned and trained by the same connections as Zenyatta and was also ridden by Mike Smith, just like the big mare.

"I've thought all along that I belonged, and, yeah, he's never been as good," Smith said after Giacomo's score. "John Shirreffs is just an amazing trainer. In every race, I swear to you, every race is just a little step forward, a little step forward, a little step forward. He wanted him exactly right until today, and he got him perfect."

Hindsight is of course 20/20, but the people working with these animals day in and day out know far better than we do how they are actually progressing. They know if they have a chance.

Again, I will say that I would only run a long shot (or a favorite for that matter) if it was training well and showing all signs of sitting on a good race. The horse's welfare has to come before the prestige that is part of having a runner in the Kentucky Derby.

But as history -- especially recent history -- has shown, odds are not necessarily the best indicator of how a horse is doing.

"Somebody said, 'Are you surprised to win with a second-tier horse?' " recounted trainer Graham Motion after Animal Kingdom's victory. "I said, 'I'm not sure we would categorize him as a second-tier horse.' He's been an extraordinary horse to train in the morning. He's just a very special horse, and I was so impressed with how he handled everything."

Although his career has been hampered by injury, Animal Kingdom would go on to prove Motion's words to be very true. In his last start, he won the $10 million Dubai World Cup, becoming the just the second Kentucky Derby winner to do so. Silver Charm, who pulled off the double in 1997 and 1998, was the first.

To date, his earnings stand at $8,387,500. Not so bad for a second-tier horse.

Animal Kingdom was dismissed by many because he had never run on dirt prior to the Derby. It was easier to assume he couldn't run on the surface, and so most did. He proved them wrong the first chance he got.

To a large degree, when these horses break out of the starting gate on Saturday, so much about them is still a mystery. Some will progress before our very eyes, others will regress in a big way, and some immensely talented horses simply won't want to run the classic 1 1/4-mile distance.

But no one knows what will happen until they are asked to try.

At the end of the day, life is hard, and if you are given the chance of a lifetime courtesy of a talented 3-year-old racehorse, I say take it. After all, I haven't met a horse yet that could read a tote board.

Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Among her other duties, she is an editor for Gallop Magazine. Write to her at amanda.duckworth@ymail.com.