How to Pick the Winner of the Kentucky Derby
First of a series of columns between now and Derby Day
by Audax Minor II
On the evening of Day of the Dead, I did what many of you no doubt did. I went to the Jardin and wandered around looking at all the calaveras and Catrinas and simply enjoying being alive here in San Miquel.
I celebrate Day of the Dead because I’m not.
But this year I especially enjoyed the day because earlier I had begun what I believe is my true life’s work. On November 2nd I started the process of picking the winner of next year’s Kentucky Derby.
It is my hope that through these columns over the six months I’ll be able to give you enough knowledge that you’ll have a firm, informed opinion about which horse will win the race.
Picture yourself at a friend’s Kentucky Derby party on May 4th. Okay, okay, maybe none of your friends are even contemplating a Derby party. You may have to throw one yourself. But imagine the thrill of commenting on the chances of each of the horses as they prance out onto the Churchill Downs track to the strains of “My Old Kentucky Home.”
And then, with about a minute before the start, you will actually announce which horse will win and how!
“(Name of winner),” you’ll announce, “will come smartly out of the gate, settle into about third or fourth position until the final turn when (Name of winning jockey) will go to the whip and he’ll pass them all. He’ll win by two or three lengths.”
The clubhouse turn at Churchill Downs on Derby Day
Your stock with all of those present will soar. Friends who previously thought of you as an amiable idiot will suddenly give you new and abiding respect. And through the penumbra effect, you will find people believing in your expertise in virtually all areas of human endeavor and knowledge.
The thinking goes something like this: well, if he can predict the winner of the Kentucky Derby then surely he can tell me how to reset the clock on my microwave oven after one of San Miguel’s weekly power outages … or he must have some workable solutions to the Middle East crisis.
Best of all for San Miguel residents, you’ll find the penumbra effect transferring your Derby handicapping prowess to the area of medical science – it’s like being awarded a virtual MD. According to research 53% of all San Miguel gringo conversations are about healthcare issues. So now you’ll have people you barely know coming to you and asking your opinion about their lower back pain or whether you believe rheumatism is contagious.
This is the promised land of new respect and peer awe that awaits you. And I can lead you there in six short months. But you have to put in the work! Which means reading these columns.
So let’s get started with the basics:
The Kentucky Derby is run every year on the first Saturday in May, which next year falls on the 4th. The race is a mile and a quarter in length and is run on the dirt course at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. It’s been run there every year since 1875 when a colt named Aristides won the inaugural edition of the race.
The race is for 3-year-olds only. Any racing fan would know this because the word “Derby” signifies a race restricted to 3-year-olds. So, for instance, the famous Epsom Derby in England is also a race for 3-year olds.
(While the English spell “derby” the same way we do, they pronounce it differently. They say “darby.” And if they happen to say “darby” in any company that includes an American you will note the speaker’s nose carried slightly higher in the air than is absolutely necessary.)
Aristides, winner of the first Kentucky Derby in 1875; jockey Oliver Lewis
Because the race is only for 3-year-olds and it’s only run once a year, a horse has only one chance to win it. Many great Hall-of-Fame horses never won the Derby for one reason or another. Maybe a colt was a slow developer and didn’t really reach his potential until the fall of his 3-year-old year. Maybe a colt suffered a minor injury and had to miss a week or two of training prior to the race. Maybe the owners or the trainer didn’t think the colt was ready.
Or maybe the colt was a filly and the owners didn’t want to make her run against the boys. While fillies are allowed to run in the Derby, not many of them do. In the history of the race only three fillies have ever won it. (I’ll write more about the reasons for that in my next column, The Kentucky Derby in a #MeToo era.)
This year on the Day of the Dead, before I went up to the Jardin, I watched on television a race for 2-year-old colts run in Kentucky – the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Stakes. That race was won, impressively I thought, by a colt called Game Winner.
Because the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile is the most important race for 2-year-olds in America, and because all 2-year-olds will become 3-year-olds on New Year’s Day and thus be eligible for next year’s Kentucky Derby, the winner of the Juvenile almost automatically becomes the early Derby favorite.
There is absolutely no guarantee that the colt will even make it to the Derby, or that better horses won’t emerge in the next six months. But if I had to bet on the Derby today, I’d have to bet on Game Winner.
So you’re even with me, watch this re-run of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
Audax Minor II is the pen name of a writer who divides each year between here in San Miguel, and a small town (pop. 400) in southern Ontario, Canada. Now retired, he travels to racetracks all over the world (four continents so far, hoping to add a fifth this year). He grew up in the Midwest of the United States and made his living as a writer for 35 years.
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