LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Mine That Bird spent the week tucked away in the Kentucky Derby Museum, not far from the track at Churchill Downs and the throngs wondering who will win the 139th run for the roses.
The 2009 Derby winner seems to enjoy when fans stop in for a visit. A gelding who retired from racing in 2010, he appears at ease. And even as rail birds and once-a-year track goers alike fall for impressive looking favorites, Mine That Bird reminds them that their hunch is actually a guess.
Orb, Verrazano and Goldencents remain the strong top choices to win Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, scheduled to be run over 1 1/4 miles for a purse of $2 million at 3:24 p.m. (with television coverage beginning at 1 p.m. on NBC). But with rain in the forecast and a 19-horse field — long shot Black Onyx scratched Friday after the deadline for also-eligible Fear the Kitten to enter the race — the prevailing view is that a week of talk about which horse will go to Baltimore and the Preakness with his Triple Crown dream alive won’t mean much by 6:26.
“I don’t mind talking about the race, hoping that people will read the stories and get interested in the sport,” said Shug McGaughey, who trains Orb, the 7-2 favorite on the morning line. “But there’s only so much I can say about it at this point — and I always hope nobody remembers what it was once the race is run.”
Mine That Bird was a 50-1 choice on the morning line and the deepest of long shots in his Derby. He dropped eight lengths back at the start, destined to be forgotten before he’d even completed the two-minute trip.
But then jockey Calvin Borel took him to the rail, and the colt went. He bolted through, then away from the field, winning by six lengths on a muddy track, looking for a moment like a horse capable of winning the 12th Triple Crown and first since Affirmed in 1978. He finished second in the Preakness, third in the Belmont and never won another race.
As of Friday, the National Weather Service predicted a 70 percent chance of rain in Louisville for Derby day, with accumulation up to half an inch.
Vyjack and Itsmyluckyday are the only horses in the Derby field to win stakes races over a wet track. Both are 15-1 choices on the morning line.
“I’ve been saying the same thing all along,” said Itsmyluckyday trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. “I just want everybody to have a fair chance to win.”
A Daily Racing Form metric that examines the performance of a horse’s sire and broodmare sire while running on wet tracks identified these five, in order, as having the most promising mud-running pedigree: D. Wayne Lukas’ Oxbow (30-1) Normandy Invasion (a 12-1 choice trained by Chad Brown), Todd Pletcher’s Revolutionary (a 10-1 shot, with Borel aboard) Will Take Charge (Lukas’ other horse and a 20-1 choice) and Orb.
Orb has probably the hottest jockey in the country, as Joel Rosario has won more than a third of his past 130 races. Second-favorite Verrazano (4-1) — one of five horses in the race trained by Todd Pletcher — will be ridden by John Velazquez, who actually took Orb to the Florida Derby winner’s circle but opted to stay with the undefeated winner of the Wood Memorial.
Velazquez did not ride for most of April after suffering a rib fracture and chipping a bone in his wrist during a spill the day after the Wood. The winner of the 2011 Kentucky Derby aboard Animal Kingdom only returned to racing this week.
Rosie Napravnik, riding 15-1 choice Mylute, gets her second chance to become the first woman — six have tried — to win the Kentucky Derby. Having earned $12 million last year and recently appeared on “60 Minutes” and in The New York Times Magazine, she has a team of marketers behind her hoping she’ll emerge as a national star by winning.
Kevin Krigger, rider for Goldencents (5-1), can become the first black jockey to win since 1902. A native of the Virgin Islands, the 29-year-old has embraced the challenge of ending a drought that has its roots in segregation caused by Jim Crow laws.
Gary Stevens, who will ride Oxbow, last appeared on the national stage as an actor — in HBO’s short-lived racing drama Luck and the movie Seabiscuit — and racing analyst. Late last year, a few months before turning 50, he moved away from his family for two months of training, dropped 20 pounds and strengthened the aching knees that pushed him away eight years ago, intent on winning his fourth Kentucky Derby.
He’ll ride for Lukas, whose large stable once allowed him to win six Triple Crown races in a row. Lukas lingers now, 14 years after winning his last Derby, hoping for another.
Pletcher is Lukas’ former assistant and heir — at least when it comes to keeping a large stable. He’s refined the concept but eschewed Lukas’ quirks. He’s a CEO in a barn, and this week he worked to prepare five unique horses for five different demanding ownership groups.
Doug O’Neill, meanwhile, returns a year after winning with I’ll Have Another — a 12-1 choice on the morning line who also won the Preakness and scratched the day before the Belmont. O’Neill’s busy barn was surrounded by visitors, and the gregarious trainer bounced around in dirty jeans and a faded ball cap. Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino, who owns five percent of the horse, came by in a suit to watch Goldencents work. They make an odd pair, but Pitino — whose Cardinals won the national title this year — believes O’Neill can train a winner again.
Early bettors showed faith in O’Neill and Borel, as both Goldencents and Revolutionary had 5-1 live odds by Friday evening, while Orb had slipped to 6-1.
Orb’s connections appear to the be the sentimental choice of many fans at Churchill Downs, where McGaughey raced Derby favorite Easy Goer to second place in 1989. He’s been back only once since.
“Never would have convinced me back then it would go that way,” he said. “I was young. Thought it’d just happen.”
Orb was bred and is owned by Stuart Janney III, whose parents bred and raced the filly Ruffian, and the Phipps Stable, led by Janney’s cousin Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps. Their family has been racing horses for more than a hundred years.
McGuaghey and Janney have never teamed for a Derby mount; Phipps had one in 1989. They’ve said their philosophy on raising race horses dictates patience early and that they rarely aim to even nudge their horses toward the Triple Crown trail.
Orb was just too good.
“It all went how it had to go,” McGaughey said. “It doesn’t go that way too often, obviously.”
The same can be — and has been — said about what happens when the gates open for the Kentucky Derby. Each year, one set of connections walks toward the infield to lift the gold trophy. The others trudge back to the barns.
Sometimes through mud.
“It’s a difficult race, a mess of a race in a lot of ways,” Janney, a Butler native, said early in the week, even before the rain forecast. “It doesn’t stay very true. You’re just hoping your horse gets to run and you can feel OK about it at the end.”
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