It's the ultimate American rite of spring, a two-minute animal act featuring over-the-top sentimentality, shameless excess and endless hype. It's the Kentucky Derby, and if you attend it, you never forget it.
Saturday, for the 141st time, Churchill Downs will stage the Run for the Roses for a mob of 160,000 or so and a worldwide television audience. Serious horseplayers and people who watch one race a year will be riveted. Mint juleps will flow as more than $200 million changes hands on and off track. Enjoy.
Joe Talamo was only 20 when he had his first Derby ride in 2010. "When you walk in the paddock, there's thousands and thousands of people circling around," he said. "There's just no other feeling like it when they start singing 'My Old Kentucky Home' and you walk onto the track.
"When you get in the starting gate, you just know it's the biggest race in the world. You know right then and there that it's the race you want to win most."
For horsemen, there's no greater challenge. Amid the chaos, nothing can go wrong. Without good fortune, even superstars fail, among them Native Dancer, Easy Goer and Point Given.
Steve Cauthen rode the last Triple Crown winner -- Affirmed in 1978 -- and no other jockey ever won the Derby and England's Epsom Derby, the model for ours.
"There's no tougher race in the world to win than the Kentucky Derby," Cauthen said. "It's a big field -- 20 horses -- and there's so many things that can happen going into the first turn with everybody fighting to get into position."
In 1999, Gary Stevens got caught in a severe jam there and feared his colt, General Challenge, would go down amid a 19-horse cavalry charge. Then Stevens realized he was in such tight quarters that there was no room to fall. He finished 11th but came home safely.Just making it to that danger zone a quarter-mile into the 1 1/4-mile endurance test is a major achievement. The thoroughbred is a magnificent creature but notoriously fragile.
Todd Pletcher owns seven Eclipse Awards and the career record for purse earnings. Yet it took the trainer 10 years and 24 losers before he got the elusive blanket of roses with Super Saver in 2010. Injury or illness kept many of his top prospects, including Eskendreya (2010) and Uncle Mo (2011), out of the race.
"It's a demanding trail leading to the Kentucky Derby," Pletcher said. "As trainers, we all understand there's no way to completely prevent injuries . . . There's no question there's going to be horses that aren't going to be able to make it for a variety of reasons."
Pletcher may saddle four colts, including third favorite Carpe Diem. Bob Baffert trains the top two, American Pharoah and undefeated Dortmund, and their brilliance is making many skeptical journalists gush. Baffert has three Derby trophies -- Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002). This year, his embarrassment of riches creates the most unrealistic expectations possible. Unless he finishes 1-2, there will be regrets and second-guesses.
"It's really fun, the excitement of it all," Baffert said. "But at the same time, we're trying to keep our excitement to a normal level because I know the disappointment in this game. Right now, our main concern is to keep them healthy. I know that uppercut is waiting for you around the corner."
On April 18, one knocked out Baffert's potential third entry, One Lucky Dane, who fractured an ankle in a workout.
The Derby gods, if you believe in such beings, can be merciless. In 2009, 19-year-old Talamo had the mount on morning-line favorite I Want Revenge, who was scratched the morning of the race with an ankle injury. "That's horse racing," Talamo said, "the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. I've never had a low as bad as that, because I knew I had such a great shot to win."
Many world-class trainers never won the Derby, including Allen Jerkens, Bill Mott and Steve Asmussen. The incomparable Laffit Pincay rode 10 losers before Swale ended his pain in 1984. Charlie Whittingham, among the 20th century's greatest horsemen, had to wait until age 76 before Ferdinand went from last to first in 1986.
Pletcher is "grateful it happened once. A long time ago, if you'd have said at the age of 47 I'd have won a Kentucky Derby, I would've told you that I didn't think that could happen." But once is not enough, and he'd "love to win it again."
Yet not everyone is forced to wait for Derby glory. Amid the hard-luck stories are many tales of instant gratification. Affirmed was Cauthen's only Derby ride. In recent years, getting it right the first time has happened more often than not -- for trainers Art Sherman (California Chrome, 2014), Chip Woolley (Mine That Bird, 2009), Rick Dutrow (Big Brown, 2008), Michael Matz (Barbaro, 2006), John Shirreffs (Giacomo, 2005), John Servis and rider Stewart Elliott (Smarty Jones, 2004) and Barclay Tagg (Funny Cide, 2003).
Cavonnier's nose loss in 1996 tormented Baffert, and a year later, he feared a rerun when Captain Bodgit ranged up alongside leader Silver Charm about 100 yards from the finish. The gritty gray held on by a head, giving Baffert's career an incalculable boost while making his platinum hair whiter.
"I thought, 'Here we go again, I'm going to get beat right on the wire,' " Baffert said. "But for some reason, I knew Silver Charm wouldn't let it happen, and he didn't.
"I really think things happen for a reason, just fate, or whatever."
Late Saturday afternoon, fate, or whatever, will be riding only one horse, and that will be the one to bet on.