34years ago, this week, I was in Louisville, Kentucky. I had the good fortune to land full press credentials to cover the Kentucky Derby for a Northern California thoroughbred breeders magazine. With full support from family, friends, and my school administrators, I took the week off and set off for Kentucky. Talk about a dream fulfilled. Fortunately, I had a friend whose family lived in Louisville and let me stay in their spare room. With rental car, and press pass in tow, I visited Churchill Downs daily for the better part of the week before the Derby and collected interviews, statistics, photographs, and all manner of data on the 20 entries for the big race. I mingled with most of the famous sports reporters of my generation. I was temporarily accepted into the network of turf writers and eagerly partook of all the privileges (access, food, beverages) afforded one with full credentials. The magical week included winning about $500. in successful bets and an unforgettable walk at 5:00 am on Derby morning across the very track the race is run on while steaming thoroughbreds completed morning workouts. Heaven...for a bit...yet.
Every May, I relive the experience as I prepare to watch the Derby on the first Saturday of the 5th month. For years after that 1982 Derby I used to watch the Churchill races at a racetrack, usually Golden Gate Fields. Sometimes I enjoyed Derby Day in the press box,(I was a working turf writer for 20 years) sometimes with my friends at the track. Occasionally I went to a Derby party or had one myself. That's all changed. It's become a solitary day for me now that I've moved to the Northwest. Everything is done through the TV and/or online these days. Still, I maintain the ritual. It's like a rite of spring. The Freshman class are about to graduate to another level. It's all we have left. Usually I'll talk to a couple of friends about the race and who I like and how it might go. Running in the Derby and being in position to win it take prodigious amounts of luck. Combined with the speed and stamina and peak performance needed, it's the biggest risk that leads to the biggest reward. My hope every year is that all who enter the gate to compete leave the track 2 minutes later in good shape.
West Coast horses have done very well these last few years. I strongly believe at this point we won't see another American Pharaoh or Triple Crown winner this year, but Nyquist, who enters the 2016 Derby as the 3-1 favorite is probably the only hope. He's undefeated and among long time horse players, you never get off an undefeated horse. Since it's time for my pre-race predictions, I have to let it roll now, before the race if I am to be credible. Of the 20 horses entered, It's still possible that one or two could scratch before Saturday, May 7th. There are two Also Eligible (alternates) so a 20 horse field is likely. I can eliminate half the field. That leaves 10 for me to choose from. I like Nyqvist because he has tactical speed and probably the stamina to sustain it for 1 1/4 miles. I also like Creator and Exaggerator two deep closers who might be able to weave through traffic and make sustained late runs. A few others to keep in mind are Mo Tom, who's been unlucky and might put it all together with some needed good fortune. Real long shots would include Mohayman, Suddenbreaking news, and Whitmore. I realize I'm eliminating contenders like Gun Runner, Brody's Cause and Destin and a few others, but ultimately one must take a stance. I will, however look at the horses as much as TV will allow and if necessary make some changes based on who looks particularly good and who seems completely unnerved by 150,000 inebriated, screaming fans. All these factors matter. Lani Is a well bred colt who has been racing in Japan and though unpredictable could have an impact on the finish. I'll be aware of that. After all, I'm still a working journalist at heart.