x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The Kentucky Derby is a race without a favourite

This year's Kentucky Derby comes with a twist - any of the 20 horses could realistically win.

Rosie Napravnik will be on board Pants On Fire for the Kentucky Derby. The highest a female jockey has ever finished is 11th in the Derby.
Rosie Napravnik will be on board Pants On Fire for the Kentucky Derby. The highest a female jockey has ever finished is 11th in the Derby.

The expressive voice that narrated the last 13 Kentucky Derbys on American television will go unheard this time.

Tom Durkin, race announcer supreme, has scratched himself from the Triple Crown, citing overwhelming anxiety that drove him to prescription medicine and a psychiatrist's couch.

Durkin did not say so, but his angst surely was ramped up by the nature of this Derby on Saturday.

The media are repeating a single description: wide open.

With an oversized field of 20, Durkin and fellow race-callers usually can prepare with a few favourites in mind and ignore a handful of horses whose owners wasted US$50,000 (Dh183,642) in entry fees.

Not this 137th running of America's grandest race, where they must have 20/20 vision: 20 in the post parade, 20 in contention.

There is no single entrant who, by finding the winner's circle and the garland of roses, would leave us scratching our heads and saying, "I did not see that coming".

Each of the half-dozen premier Derby prep races yielded surprise champions as the leading contenders faltered:

Ÿ The Factor? He was no factor in the Arkansas Derby.

Ÿ Uncle Mo ran in slow-mo at the Wood Memorial.

Ÿ Mucho Macho Man was a stale-nacho colt in the Louisiana Derby.

Ÿ Premier Pegasus and Jaycito were touted during the drum roll to the Santa Anita Derby. With two days to go, Pegasus came up ailing and was withdrawn. On the eve of the race Jaycito joined him on the sideline.

Ÿ To Honor and Serve entered both Florida preps as the people's choice. He served up a pair of disappointments, third in each, and has been honourably discharged from the Derby trail.

Mike Battaglia is the man who determines the odds on Kentucky Derby entries, which essentially designate the pre-race favourite. Asked recently which horse would earn his blessing, he said: "Wow. I have no idea. It's crazy. This is just totally ridiculous."

Battagalia must sort it out by today, presumably without need of drugs or a psychiatrist, when post positions are drawn.

As the highly regarded have retreated back to the pack or disappeared altogether from the Derby picture, improbable bystanders have stepped forward.

Master of Hounds has raced seven times, winning once. He has yet to set hoof on dirt, the Derby surface at Churchill Downs. He is familiar with the track, which is no asset, having trudged home sixth at the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf.

His corner is convinced that a second place in this year's UAE Derby, where he was beaten by a nose by Godolphin's Saeed bin Suroor-trained Khawlah, is the ticket into the Kentucky Derby.

Hey, why not? Other candidates are just now getting accustomed to a dirt course.

Animal Kingdom has raced four times, all on turf or Polytrack.

Brilliant Speed has tried dirt twice, losing by a combined 40 lengths.

Twinspired's lone venture on the surface resulted in an eighth-place finish, 12 lengths back at a track you have never heard of.

Soldat is no stranger to Churchill Downs, having answered the bell at last year's Breeders' Cup - but in the Juvenile Turf, alongside Master of Hounds.

The chaos has opened the starting gates to some far-fetched participants. Rosie Napravnik will board Pants On Fire for only the second time. She - Rosie, not Pants - is a household name only in her residence. Only five women jockeys have earned Derby mounts, none finishing better than 11th.

Jinks Fires, the trainer of Archarcharch, has worked more than a half-century without getting a whiff of the Derby until now. The rider, Jon Court - at 50, retirement age for his profession - is also a Derby rookie.

Only this year could a horse, Uncle Mo, have been thrown off his training schedule as late as mid-April with a stomach infection and remain in the discussion as race favourite. If you have read this far expecting the winner to be revealed, sorry to waste your time.

OK, if you insist: Midnight Interlude, whose trainer (Bob Baffert) has this first Saturday in May figured out, or Soldat, who is bred to run all day.

I had originally thought to include Toby’s Corner, who was near to breaking the speed of sound down the stretch of his Wood Memorial win, but he has pulled out with an injury.

It’s been that kind of Derby lead-up.

Sitting this one out … good call, Tom Durkin.