In defense of Derby Fever
Updated: April 30, 2013, 4:57 PM ETBy Amanda Duckworth | Special to ESPN.com
Getty ImagesConnections of Charming Kitten hope their colt can prove he belongs in Saturday's Kentucky Derby.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.
"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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Horsephotos.comCalvin Borel rode 50-1 Kentucky Derby long shot Mine That Bird to victory in 2009.
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