2018 Kentucky Derby brimming with star power

Louisville, Kentucky: If galumphing through the barns in search of wisdom at this starry, loaded Kentucky Derby, one might brush by Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott telling a TV interviewer, “We’re all guessing.” One might listen to Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert noting the recession of patience in 21st-century horse buying, or saying of the sport, “We don’t have a draft.” (Why not? It might boost TV ratings.) One might hear the Hall of Fame certainty Todd Pletcher speak of the hard, rare art of attempting to watch his own multiple entries — four, this time — in a Kentucky Derby.

In real time, he says he discerns almost nothing.

For understanding, he must watch the tape repeatedly.

He sounds like a football coach, yet believable.

For a sport alleged to have spent all our lives languishing, horse racing has yielded a Kentucky Derby chockablock with contenders and stardom. For one thing, enough Hall of Fame trainers lurk around that there’s even this 82-year-old marvel atop a horse, and if you’ve never seen an 82-year-old marvel atop a horse, you really should see an 82-year-old marvel atop a horse.

The four-time Derby winner D. Wayne Lukas has Calumet Farms’s 50-1 shot Bravazo, which gives him the chance to relay to listeners that he still rides “four or five hours every day,” and that he considers proximity to the horses his secret because, for one thing, “I feel more comfortable out there [on the track] than I would be standing [around], talking about my golf score or who I slept with or something.”

Let the man, then, assess the uncertainty born of wide quality: “I think it’s the deepest field we’ve had in a long time. It’s really deep. I think usually we have one or two horses that kind of catch your fancy and you feel good about, but this year, you could probably go as far as eight deep.”

Elaborating: “When you start getting a couple of undefeated horses [Justify and Magnum Moon], and then you get two or three Grade I winners of these major races that they dominated [Mendelssohn, Audible, Vino Rosso]… that gives you a depth that you want to see and everything.” He stressed the “good riders, good trainers, and that’s important,” and said, “Most of these horses have got good people managing them.”

Pletcher has the four, following his 24 entries over the previous eight years with winners in 2017 and 2010. Baffert, a four-time winner, has Justify, who has gone from zero to marvel to Kentucky Derby favourite in 10 1/2 weeks. Mott, that paragon of patience, has Hofburg, raced only on September 2, March 3 and March 31, but deemed curious because of the 64-year-old Mott’s general lack of neediness with the Kentucky Derby, his entries coming only in 1984, 1998 (two entries), 2002, 2008 (two entries) and 2009.

There’s a Mott element, a Baffert favourite, a Pletcher mass and then the second favourite Mendelssohn sitting over unseen and mysterious in his barn, quarantine process ongoing, after another of his globe-trotting trips. His earlier wins in California at the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf in November and in Dubai at the UAE Derby by 18 1/2 lengths have wowed people beyond their capacity to suppress it.

The field as a whole has reduced several principles to game, honest afterthoughts, including a long-fancied sort such as Bolt d’Oro, who placed second to Justify at the Santa Anita Derby. Ahmad Zayat, an owner of the 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, has part of Solomini; Vincent Viola, a co-owner of Pletcher’s 2017 winner Always Dreaming, has the 12-1 Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso.

It’s both a lot and a whole lot to comprehend, and at the top of the odds it has Baffert placing his 3-0-0 Justify into sentences with American Pharoah. With Justify’s array of part-owners — China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners, Starlight Racing, WinStar Farm — exhibiting what Pletcher sees as a trend of shared ownerships, Baffert said: “There’s no draft in horse racing. We just, we have to hope that these clients, they’ll say, ‘Well, you know, Bob, we want to send you a horse. I think he’s pretty nice. Hopefully it’ll work out.’ So that’s why I got Justify. So, sometimes the luck of the draw, or whatever. When you do get one like that, you take full advantage and hope to get the best out of them, and that’s where we’re at.”

As for advantages of having plural entries, Baffert, 65, sees “absolutely none,” then pauses before saying, “Unless you’re Todd Pletcher.”

Pletcher’s four — Magnum Moon at 6-1, Audible at 8-1, Vino Rosso at 12-1 and Louisiana Derby winner Noble Indy at 30-1 — are as thick with oddsmakers’ promise as any group he has had along his way to 52 Derby entries (provided all four run on Saturday). His capacity to get horses to this point is a feat of towering steadiness. Said Elliott Walden, the trainer who won the 1998 Belmont Stakes with Victory Gallop and who runs WinStar Farms in Kentucky, “You call him at four-thirty in the morning; he’s at the barn seven days a week.” He called Pletcher “very organised, very methodical, non-emotional on a lot of fronts.”

He’ll watch four at a time on Saturday, and he said: “It’s actually a little more complicated, watching it. It’s something, to really, fully get a real handle on the race, I’ll have to go back and watch the replay a number of times, and watch each horse individually. But… the Derby’s a hard race to watch, period, but when you have more than one horse, it makes it that much harder.”

He said that while, across the way at this 144th Kentucky Derby, a man who seems far shy of his 82 epitomised the event where everybody’s always guessing. “I’m more optimistic about our 2-year-olds who’ll be turning 3 next year,” Lukas said, forever imagining the future.

“They look pretty impressive.”