Anything that has already happened is history. Therefore, the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby, featuring a win by I’ll Have Another, a horse whose name I didn’t know before the race, is now history. Where does it fit in? Another exciting race, in which favorites and longshots battled for the lead, shows once more that the Kentucky Derby retains its place as the one race which draws the cream of the equine crop each year, and in so doing, provides a national showcase for our sport.
The history of the Derby is full of longshots. This year, a 15-1 longshot ridden by a rookie outran the favorite, Bodemeister, to win the Derby. Animal Kingdom, who seemingly came out of nowhere last year, went off at 8-1 odds, a virtual favorite compared to his immediate predecessors, Super Saver, who went off at 21-1 in 2010, and the legitimate longshot Mine that Bird, who went off at 50-1 in 2009.
Before you begin the refrain about favorites never winning, remember that Street Sense went off as the favorite at 5-1 in 2007, and Big Brown was a substantial favorite at about 5-2 in 2008. So, it’s possible for favorites to win, too.
Trying to predict the Derby proves that you pretty well can’t. Over the past ten years, the betting favorite in the Derby has won only three times, while horses going off at odds in excess of twenty to one have won four times. The other three Derby winners went off at odds of 6, 8, and a little over 10 to one.
My sentimental favorite longshot this year was Trinniberg, who reminded me of Canonero II, the Venezuelan longshot I wrote about recently who ran his way to a victory in the 1971 Derby and Preakness. Like Canonero II, Trinniberg had connections with ethnic diversity down to a science: trainer Bisnath Parboo, a Trinidadian native of Indian extraction, said in an interview that his last name was misspelled on his American citizenship papers, and he just never bothered to change it. That somehow reminded me of the apparently true story that, after Canonero II’s victory in the Santa Anita Derby, the Bald Eagle himself, Charlie Whittingham, tried to buy the colt, and left, frustrated, when none of the owners or trainers could speak English.
I went back and watched the videos of Trinniberg’s two wins, in the Swale Stakes at Gulfstream Park and the Bay Stakes at Aqueduct. Trinniberg went off as a longhsot of about 17-1 in the Swale in March. He led wire to wire in one long burst of speed reminiscent of Canonero II. Swelled up by his performance at Gulfstream, Trinniberg went off at almost 2-1 in the Bay Shore, winning in another long burst of speed, again leading wire to wire. Trinniberg is a no-strategy runner. He runs. Fast. Until he tires out, then he slows down, and I assume eventually stops.
Bodemeister pretty well did the same thing in the Arkansas Derby, leading virtually all the way and winning going away by 9 1/2 lengths. Both pretty well repeated their performances at the Derby. Bodemeister led the pack throughout the race, with Trinniberg second at the mile marker, which was already a furlong further than he’d ever run, when, as many handicappers (but alas, not me) had predicted, he faded away, entering the final stretch firmly in 11th place, and finally making it home 17th out of 20 runners. The race was Bodemeister’s to win, and he almost did, until I’ll Have Another made that wonderful final charge, winning by a length and a half.
We had the perfect storm of predictability and unpredictability. Virtually every handicapper figured that Bodemeister and Trinniberg would duel it out for the lead, and most figured that Bodemeister would come out on top. They were right, but they didn’t count on a 15-1 shot with nothing in his past to suggest a stretch run like I’ll Have Another made, or the skillful ride that jockey Mario Guttierez, making his first appearance at Churchill Downs, gave him.
In my last column, I shared some thoughts about what makes the Derby remain important to horse racing, and this year’s race, and those of recent years, illustrates another one perfectly: Any horse in the Derby is physically capable of running at least one race in its career good enough to win the Derby. The question is always which horse has that magic combination of desire, physical ability, and conditioning to run its best race that day.
My point is that only the Derby is a big enough race to draw twenty, or even if you discount the bottom quarter, fifteen runners having the level of talent necessary to win a major graded stakes race. We saw few big head to head duels in the Derby prep races, which are now so numerous that horses can easily qualify for the Derby by winning races against few, if any, other serious Derby contenders. And, no doubt some of the disappointed owners will forego the Preakness, and some the Belmont as well. The late Col. Matt Winn, legendary promoter of the Derby, knew what he was doing in maneuvering his race to be the first jewel of the Triple Crown, a result not necessarily pre-ordained; prior to 1931, the Preakness had often been held either before the Derby or on the same day.
Where does that put this one in history? At a time when horse racing is beset by financial problems, faces a scandal regarding the deaths of horses at some racetracks, whose implications are as yet unknown, and when racing fans are said to be no more than aging eccentrics, the industry managed to give us an exciting race, a great lineup of runners, and some good longshots, one of whom was good enough, last Saturday, to win what is still the number one race in equine sports. I’d say, historically speaking, that the Kentucky Derby is alive and well, thank you, and I can’t wait to see how the rest of the Triple Crown plays out.
Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying, and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a life long interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Prof. Miller’s role as Legal Editor on ABC TV’s Good Morning, America. He writes, posts, and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.