LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The sight and sound of 20 horses surging toward the first turn at Churchill Downs is unique to the Kentucky Derby, which is just as well. As Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote: "A terrible beauty is born."
In the first quarter-mile, the power and grace of the thoroughbred descends into a stampede. Amid thundering hooves and yelling jockeys, many will be eliminated from contention. Those who are bumped hard, blocked or forced wide into the turn rarely win.
With so many front-runners in Saturday's 141st Derby, that mad rush figures to be even crazier than usual. Among the leading contenders, favorite American Pharoah, Dortmund and Carpe Diem like to be on or near the lead, as do long shots Materiality, Upstart, Firing Line, Ocho Ocho Ocho and Mr. Z.
Speed can kill if left alone, but will all the speeds kill each other? Ken Ramsey hopes so. He owns Louisiana Derby winner International Star, who likes to come from far back. "This is one of the greatest Derby fields I've seen, from top to bottom,'" Ramsey said, "but I like the shape of the race for my horse."
South African trainer Mike de Kock is making his Derby debut with Dubai shipper Mubtaahij. He's done his homework. "From watching many Derbys, I think the cream gets settled very early in the race," de Kock said. "If my horse can deal with the first quarter-mile of frenzy, I think he'll be all right."
There is no bigger if in racing, and no one knows what will happen after the gates open. But I'm an alleged expert who has to make a semi-educated guess. It's a highly subjective equation with more variables than the algebra problems that bedeviled me in high school. But as Hyman Roth said to fellow gangster Michael Corleone in "The Godfather: Part II": "And I said to myself, 'This is the business we've chosen.' "
So once again it's time to risk public humiliation, although I did pick Derby winners Sunday Silence, Unbridled, Grindstone, Silver Charm, Monarchos, Street Sense, Big Brown and Orb.
American Pharoah is the consensus best horse, and if you can get his 5-2 morning-line odds, fire away, but I think all the hype will shorten his price. His unbeaten stablemate, Dortmund (3-1), should run well, too. If you love either one, maybe a big win bet is a smart move. I'll use them in doubles and exactas, but many strong Derby favorites went down, so I'm looking elsewhere for the winner.
I landed on Frosted, a 15-1 shot with lots of plusses. He's bred exceptionally well for 1¼ miles and gives the impression he can improve off his Wood Memorial victory. Top rider Joel Rosario came from far back in 2013 on Orb, and I'm confident he can work out a good trip from midpack. So is trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.
"We're very happy with post ," McLaughlin said. "There's plenty of speed outside us, there's plenty of speed inside us."
Frosted has excellent turn times, and a big move on the stretch turn often decides the Derby. Hall of Fame rider and NBC analyst Jerry Bailey gives him a chance.
"That was a very impressive Wood win with a change-of-pace style, coming off the pace and getting a big speed number," Bailey said. "I think Frosted will have to do even better than that to win on Saturday."
That's what Derby winners do.
The play: Bet Frosted across the board and key him in exacta boxes with Dortmund, American Pharoah and Danzig Moon, whom I pick second, third and fourth, respectively.