Derby Day 141, Columbia County

IMG_0982 Another first Saturday in May has come and gone, taking another Kentucky Derby and American Pharoah’s cloak of invincibility along with it. Maybe in another four weeks the Derby winner will have caught back up with his hype and made history by becoming the 12th winner of the American Triple Crown. Maybe not. Either way, the long stretch drive at Churchill Downs last Saturday showed that while American Pharoah is indeed a game and talented horse, for now he remains just that: a horse. It figures to take a bit more than what he showed in reeling in Dortmand and Firing Line for him to reclaim the mantle of equine legend in the making.

But before we get to skipping right over the Preakness (kind of like Todd Pletcher, who has had one Preakness starter since Super Saver in 2010), let’s take one more look at the 141st Kentucky Derby.

The favorite won again, making them five for their last nine, and seven for their last sixteen, following the 20-year drought of the eighties and nineties. Only Carpe failing to seize the Diem prevented the first five betting choices from filling out the Super Hi-Five, making this perhaps the chalkiest Derby in recent memory. Despite being billed as the deepest and most talented Derby field in years, it played out like a boat race, with the horses running 3-2-1 all the way around the racetrack finishing up 1-2-3 (word is even Floyd Mayweather found it boring). Yes the hyped-up super horse prevailed, but only after Victor Espinoza thumped out 8 bars in 4/4 time on American Pharoah’s flanks, getting the two of them through a contentious final quarter in 26 seconds plus and putting to bed, for now anyway, the Seattle Slew comparisons. All that for a $7.80 win mutuel and a $202 trifecta (100-1 odds for a bet that had nearly 5,000 possible outcomes).

Afterwards it was said that some people felt deflated by the result, but you’d never know it by some of these photographs (swiped from eOnline). Everyone seemed happy enough (at least for the time being).

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But for horseplayers who were subjected to watching the Derby telecast on NBC – a network that tends to treat its other championship events with a touch more respect  – it’s a reminder as to where racing and the Derby stack up within that great American subconscious.

Sure it’s a great horse race with wonderful Kentucky traditions that resonate across the country: huge betting pools; mint juleps; the fleecing of outsiders; a lightly edited Stephen Foster song; plus a collective and bizarre obsession with hats that lately seems to have hurdled what remains of the gender divide (yeah, I’m talking to you, Gronkowski!). The TV ratings tell us that the only two horse races that Americans care about are the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes (and that number falls to one in years when the Derby winner fails to repeat in the Preakness). And to judge by the Derby broadcast, NBC isn’t all that sure how Americans feel about the horse racing part of the horse race, hence the hedging with the celebrity and headwear coverage.

It’s a sad state of affairs. From the 2-year-old races the previous summer at Saratoga and Del Mar, up until the time when they finish compiling their alibis for why their horse lost, horseplayers are obsessed with the Derby. But for most Americans, if they think about the Derby at all, the day represents a chance to throw a party, to start drinking bourbon in mid-afternoon, and to watch a show about hats that concludes with a horse race. It’s a rite of spring, with horseplayers focused solely on the rite, and the balance of the audience lavishing in their annual spring revelry. Easter hats without having to go to church. Even if the commonwealth of Kentucky only threw a big-money horseshoes tournament, the first Saturday in May would still tend to be a pretty great day across most of America the Beautiful (with some carve-outs for the odd tornado here and there).

And so it was here in Columbia County, near the eastern bank of the Hudson, just downriver from the Rip Van Winkle Bridge. Around here we don’t refer to it as “God’s Country”, but not because it isn’t pleasant. It is. More so because we are humble city folk with second homes who would find it presumptuous to handicap where God might choose to spend his weekends. Besides, what if he were to want it back someday?

[And if you think I’m kidding about how nice it is here – about 75 miles south of Saratoga – the picture at the top of this post was taken on the morning of Derby Day 141 from our town dump (see below). OK, technically it is a “transfer station”, but since this is where we dump our garbage and recyclables, we fondly refer to it as “the dump”.]

IMG_0982While it was a wonderful day in the Hudson Valley and across much of the country, it turned out to be a pretty lousy day for the three Derby horses who were foaled in New York. We are too lazy to do the research but are willing to bet that these three broke the record for most New York-breds entered in a single Derby. A couple of them were even thought by some folks to have a decent chance at winning if the favorite didn’t turn out to be all that. But International Star was a late scratch due to a foot problem, and the Upstart that ran in the Derby was not the same Upstart who had run a bunch of fast races at Aqueduct and Gulfstream Park. Upstart never really got into the race, was eased and finished last, while the 52-1 Tencendur finished next to last. Excelsior!

The two horses that captured our imagination were the horse we bet on, Frosted (we have a soft spot for pretty grays capable of running negative Thoro-Graph speed figures at double-digit odds), and our sentimental choice (who, at 4-1, we might have bet with your money), the hulking, sad-eyed Dortmund.

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Dortmund’s sire, the 2008 Derby and Preakness champ Big Brown, had recently moved into the neighborhood, so it seemed like a good idea to stop by for a visit and to wish him good luck on the occasion of his son’s big day. And anyway, it was too beautiful a Derby Day to spend the entire afternoon inside betting races on a computer.

The drive from the southwest corner of Columbia County to Pine Plains in Dutchess County takes you along beautiful winding roads which partly trace the fall of the Roeliff Jansen Kill on its way to meet the Hudson in Linlithgo. After navigating the one stoplight that constitutes downtown Pine Plains, a few graceful turns and an uphill road take you to Dutchess Views Farm, home to the 2008 Horse of the Year, Big Brown.

480_WSJ_Article_1_ The last time New York stood a horse with the accomplishments of Big Brown was back when Spectacular Bid was exiled to Milfer Farm in Unadilla, after his big-time stallion career turned out to be the polar opposite of his towering career on the race track. But Big Brown is only ten years old, not yet a failure nor a success in his second act, and his arrival in Pine Plains has shaken things up at the otherwise tranquil-seeming Dutchess Views Farm. Anya Sheckley, who with her partner Michael Lischin run the place, seemed to wonder how much busier things could possibly get at the farm if Dortmund were to win the Derby. With a book of 140 mares, Big Brown has already had a huge impact on business, which is why a supply of carrots is always across from his stall; to compensate the big fellow for putting up with slack-jawed admirers like me, spoiling his increasingly rare quiet moments.

On taking my leave Anya and I briefly discussed the race, agreeing that Dortmund had a good shot, but that the field was very tough, and the favorite was indeed formidable. “Starting from the outside might be good for him”, she said, speaking prophetically of American Pharoah.

Driving back west alongside the Roeliff Jansen Kill, I thought back to Big Brown crushing the Florida Derby from the impossible 12 post going 9 furlongs at Gulfstream, and then dominating a 20-horse Derby from the outside stall. Starting from the outside was good for him too, but it takes a hell of a lot of talent to win a race from the parking lot.

But all the talent in the world may not enough be to overcome unreasonable expectations. And what is the Triple Crown, if not a series of unreasonable expectations. It’s unfair, as Steve Coburn found out last year with his California Chrome. Maybe one of these days the stars and circumstances will align, and a great and lucky horse will win the Triple Crown. But it’s not the way to bet.

As horseplayers we know that if American Pharoah manages to win in Baltimore, the hype that started in the early morning at Clocker’s Corner at Santa Anita and reached a fever pitch in the Arkansas Derby afternoon before fizzling somewhat in the Churchill stretch, will reach a crescendo on the big stage at Elmont, creating a great betting opportunity. Until then, many horseplayers will hunker down with Todd Pletcher and Kiaran McLaughlin and their horses and lie in wait. They will quietly root for American Pharoah to win the Preakness so that they can bet against him in the Belmont. When our non-racing friends ask about American Pharoah’s chances to win the Triple Crown we will urge caution, and tell them why it is so hard to complete the cycle. And if they persist? He’s supposed to be a super horse, isn’t he? Well, at least we tried. You can’t fight the hype except through the betting windows. “Send it in,” we would ruefully suggest, telling them with a sigh what they clearly would like to believe. “He can’t lose.”

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