LOUISVILLE, Ky. – To understand why the Kentucky Derby really is the most exciting two minutes in sports – why stomachs twist at the start and hearts pound at the finish and tension permeates every step in between – you must trace the broad path that narrows to a razor's edge Saturday evening. You must go back to the beginning.
The journey to this 138th running of the world's greatest horse race began in late winter or early spring of 2009. It began on a thoroughbred farm somewhere – the rolling bluegrass countryside of Kentucky for many. It began at birth, with blood and wobbly legs and high hopes for every live thoroughbred foal.
What followed has been a remorseless whittling down to the fastest and the fittest of the three-year-olds.
The Jockey Club estimates that 36,850 foals were born in 2009. Of that group, 1.1 percent (412) was nominated for the 2012 Triple Crown. Of those 412, 4.9 percent (20) were entered in the 2012 Kentucky Derby.
And about 6:26 ET Saturday, exactly one of those nearly 37,000 foals born in 2009 will stand as the shining star of his generation.
There is one chance for a horse to win the Kentucky Derby. There is no second try. They are only 3 years old once.
There is a two-minute window to immortality, and then it is closed. For the animals and the people attached to it, a life's work can be reduced to 120 seconds and change. The winner will have his name written on the paddock walls of Churchill Downs for as long as the grand old edifice stands, and the losers eventually will be forgotten.
The suddenness of the moment is part of the allure – an ironic acceleration of a process that began three years ago. After all the patience and nurturing of a yearling, the labor that goes into breaking a 2-year-old and turning him into a race horse, then the months of prep races, immortality is decided in a relative eye blink. Three years of growing, scheming, dreaming and planning will be distilled into two minutes of fury.
For the horses who have arrived at this grand stage, the race itself is riddled with caprice. They will never run again in a field this big – traffic problems will compromise several of them. Weather can be a factor – a sloppy track transformed Go For Gin from a contender to a winner in 1994. So can post postion – Lookin at Lucky may well have been the best horse in 2010, until he was buried in the No. 1 hole and had no chance. Track conditions and the animals' ability to handle the sensory overload from 150,000 people may play a part in the outcome as well.
One bad break, one bad rider decision, is enough to kill a Derby dream. In a two-minute race, there isn't much time to recover if something goes wrong.
Trainer Bob Baffert, who has won three Derbies since 1997, said it best: "It takes 90 percent horse and 10 percent luck to get here, then 90 percent luck and 10 percent horse to win."
Despite that equation, the Derby is in many ways the ultimate measuring stick of these 3-year-olds – their breeding, speed, stamina and heart. None of these horses have ever ran as far a 1¼ miles before; we will see DNA and fortitude tested in the cruel Churchill stretch. Those who are not bred or conditioned for the distance will falter and be passed.
The event comes to crescendo with a riot of emotions in the stretch – euphoria, disbelief, bitter disappointment are all in the air. Some of the greatest moments in the history of the sport have unfolded right there, on the ancient dirt beneath the Twin Spires.
Trainer Carl Nafzger calling the 1990 Derby stretch run aloud to 92-year-old owner Frances Genter, too small to see for herself that her colt, Unbridled, was winning the race. Genter held her tiny fist to her mouth in glee as he described it.
Nick Zito shouting out his love for seemingly everyone and everything as Strike The Gold delivered the trainer his first Derby victory in 1991.
Upstart Baffert, kingpin D. Wayne Lukas and everyone else watching in ecstacy/agony/uncertainty as Baffert's Cavonnier and Lukas' Grindstone battled nose-to-nose all the way to the wire in 1996. After a long deliberation by the racing stewards, Grindstone and Lukas won the photo finish. Lukas was embraced as he walked to the winner's circle, while Baffert walked in a dejected daze through the paddock.
Fanfare for the common man in 2003 when Funny Cide, owned by a bunch of regular Joes nicknamed the "Sackatoga Six," showed that the Derby can be won on a budget.
[Related audio: Pat Forde talks about the pageantry that is the Kentucky Derby]
Universal awe when Barbaro roared like one of the greats off the turn, kicking away to demolish the 2006 field by 6 ½ lengths. At the time he looked destined for Triple Crown immortality, not tragedy.
Universal astonishment in 2009, as Calvin Borel booted home 50-1 long shot Mine That Bird along the rail for the second of his three victories in the last five runnings. If a single Derby can illustrate the notion that anything can happen on the first Saturday in May, this was it.
There is so much packed into those two minutes that the emotional letdown is almost palpable thereafter. Then, everyone tries to piece it back together in the hours and days to come – what happened, how it happened, how it felt to be in the middle of it.
As John Steinbeck wrote after watching the 1956 race: "I am fulfilled and weary. This Kentucky Derby, whatever it is – a race, an emotion, a turbulence, an explosion – is one of the most beautiful and violent and satisfying things I have ever experienced."
The beauty, violence and satisfaction will be there again Saturday evening. The Derby will not disappoint. It never does.
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