Dumb, stupid luck
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
It's time to throw out your trip notes, your pedigree studies. Don't watch any Derby workouts. Why bother? How's the track playing? Who cares? Who's got the best figures? Repeat after me, "It just doesn't matter. It just doesn't matter."
Consider the multitude of evidence:
Stable comes to the Kentucky Derby last year with one of the most talented 3-year-olds the sport has seen in years. For reasons no one has yet to figure out, Point Given never picks up his feet and finishes a bad fifth. The whole thing looks even weirder when the one and the same horse crushes his opposition in the Preakness and the Belmont before retiring to stand at stud for $42 zillion.
"Last year I walked up there thinking this race would be a piece of cake," said the stable's trainer, the white-haired guy with the magic touch that disappeared for a day.
Stable returns to the Kentucky Derby a year later with a horse with a zero Q rating, a horse that won a prep race that seemed meaningless at the time and goes off at 20-1 in the Derby. Said horse wasn't even supposed to be here. The guy who wins the prep race that seems meaningless at the time doesn't think it's even worth his while to show up at the Derby. That changes when a rich Arab guy buys the horses because, well, rich Arab guys can do whatever they want and he wanted to have a horse in the Kentucky Derby.
Of course, had the rich Arab guy really been doing his homework, he wouldn't have bought the horse in the first place. Seems the horse has chips in his knees, meaning he's a walking wounded and anyone who had bothered to have a thorough veterinary check taken wouldn't have paid a plugged nickel, let alone an oil well, for him.
Chips, shmips. The horse shows up at the Kentucky Derby, but the pundits say he can't possibly win it because there's so much speed in the race and surely old War Emblem is going to get fried in a suicidal battle. Of course, the battle looks a little easier after a good speed horse named Buddha comes down with a boo-boo and has to be scratched.
Speed duel? What speed duel? War Emblem goes out front and 17 other jockeys inexplicably check their brains at the starting gate and slam on the brakes. The fractions are glacial as War Emblem crawls through a half-mile in :47.04 and six furlongs in 1:11.75. War Emblem leads a procession around the racetrack as the first three finishers run one, two, three the whole way in what was quite simply one of the most boring Kentucky Derbies in history. It was about as fun as a case of foot fungus.
The race is over, War Emblem wins and everyone says, "huh?" That includes his trainer.
"We were just lucky," Bob Baffert said. "This game is about luck. Fortunately, it worked out for us. When it's your turn, it's your turn. That's the way it went."
Meanwhile, the rich Arab guy, Prince Ahmed Bin Salman, still can't believe he lost it last year with a horse that could have beaten War Emblem with one hoof tied behind his back.
"Things just don't work out your way sometimes," he said.
And sometimes they do. There's a reason only one favorite has won the Kentucky Derby since 1979 and that some really, really good horses like Point Given, Holy Bull, Hansel, Skip Away and Pine Bluff were complete duds come Derby Day. It wasn't their day. The karma, the luck, whatever, just didn't shine on them. That's all that matters.
Today, it shined on War Emblem, Prince Salman and Bob Baffert. It seems that the Gods of Racing were in a strange mood. Baffert wasn't exactly Mr. Popular this week after playing games with Danthebluegrassman, the horse he entered at the last minute for no conceivable reason, only to scratch him later after knocking Windward Passage out of the race. And Prince Salman isn't exactly Horatio Alger. Hey, he makes George Steinbrenner, whose horse, Blue Burner, finished eleventh, seem like an indigent. The 128th Kentucky Derby was clearly a case of the rich getting richer.
Oh, well. There's always next year. Who do I like? It all depends where my dart lands.