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John Clay: Another wide-open Kentucky Derby not what fans want or horse racing needs

For the Kentucky Derby, the phrase of the day is "wide open."

"When Uncle Mo went down, it made it wide open," Mike Battaglia, oddsmaker for both Keeneland and the Kentucky Derby, said Wednesday at the draw for Saturday's Toyota Blue Grass Stakes.

"Actually," continued Battaglia, "it was pretty wide open before that."

Uncle Mo didn't really go down. He's not injured or ill, as blood tests proved to trainer Todd Pletcher on Tuesday. He will still run on the first Saturday in May. But you get Battaglia's point.

The previously unbeaten Uncle Mo finished a shocking third in the Wood Memorial Stakes last Saturday, opening up a cavalcade of possibilities as to what might happen at Churchill Downs.

For bettors, "wide open" is the phrase that pays.

For the general public, for the race that the general public is most interested in watching, that's not the case.

"Wide open" means a cluttered field of names and faces often too numerous to keep straight. "Wide open" means a better shot that a long shot slips through and grabs the roses, which can be good and heartwarming as a one-day event but not so good for the staying power of the sport.

Take last year when Super Saver won the Derby. It was nice that deserving trainer Todd Pletcher snapped a sizable oh-for and won his first Derby. It was great for WinStar Farm. But when Super Saver ran eighth in the Preakness, most of the fun was drained from the Triple Crown.

That's why come Saturday at Keeneland's Blue Grass Stakes and at Oaklawn's Arkansas Derby, you need to root for the favorites. In the former, that would be Eddie Kenneally's Santiva. In Arkansas, that would be Bob Baffert's The Factor.

Battaglia made Santiva the 3-1 favorite for Saturday, mainly off the horse's second-place finish to Mucho Macho Man in the Risen Star on Feb. 19. Like Super Saver, Santiva won the Kentucky Jockey Club last year, so he has the win over the Churchill Downs track.

He also looks to be the best among a field of mainly dreamers. In fact, second-choice King Congie, owned by West Point Thoroughbreds and trained by Tom Albertrani, is a turf standout hoping to take advantage of Keeneland's Polytrack surface.

Mike Stidham, trainer for 10-1 shot Willcox Inn, said bluntly Wednesday that his horse "more than likely would not be looking at the Derby, but you never say never."

Out in Arkansas, Baffert wasn't looking at The Factor as being much of a Derby factor, either. The son of War Front has more of a sprinter's pedigree. Baffert has openly said he figured the horse would be a miler.

Then The Factor won his maiden race in track-record time. Then he won a 7-furlong stakes race. Then, on Jan. 16, he went wire-to-wire for the third straight time in taking the Rebel Stakes by an impressive 6¼ lengths at Oaklawn.

On Tuesday, Battaglia said that if the Kentucky Derby were to be held on that day, he would make The Factor the 7-2 favorite.

Not that Baffert expects a breeze in Arkansas. Speed demons Dance City and J P's Gusto will push for the lead Saturday. And it's still not known whether The Factor can do the Derby distance.

Nor is there a shortage of quality horses for this particular Derby. Nick Zito's Dialed In has won three of his four starts, including the Florida Derby. Another Baffert entry, Midnight Interlude, looked sensational making his way through traffic problems to win the Santa Anita Derby.

Plus, despite his unexpected loss, Uncle Mo's backers point to his respectable :12.8 time in the final furlong of the Wood.

If The Factor and Santiva win on Saturday, you can add their names to the quality list. If not, we may be right where we are today, looking at a "wide open" Derby.

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