LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Every so often the horse with the most improbable story, and the best one, wins the Kentucky Derby, and America gets misty. No country loves over-the-top sentimentality as much, so when a “people’s horse” overcomes long odds to triumph in our national race, it’s an “aw” moment.
The mainstream media loved the sagas of Funny Cide, Mine That Bird and California Chrome. In 2003, Funny Cide’s middle-class owners from upstate New York took a school bus from their hotel and watched their gutsy, New York-bred gelding take the big race. In 2009, the gelding Mine That Bird rode in a trailer from New Mexico before scoring in the mud at 50-1 odds under Cajun Everyman Calvin Borel. In 2014, obscurely bred California Chrome thrilled his legion of Chromies and his newbie owner-breeders on Derby Day.
Savor those memories, because the chances of seeing “little guys” in the winner’s circle Saturday at Churchill Downs couldn’t be much worse. The 144th Derby is a gathering of racing’s superpowers, and none of the sport’s most prosperous owners and trainers qualifies as a sentimental favorite, unless you’re a blood relative.
The big boys have this field surrounded. Todd Pletcher, the all-time leader in purse earnings, trains four — Magnum Moon, Audible, Vino Rosso and Noble Indy. Four-time Derby winner Bob Baffert has undefeated favorite Justify and longshot Solomini, owned by Ahmed Zayat, for whom Baffert trained 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.
Aidan O’Brien, one of the greatest trainers of all time, brought Mendelssohn over from Ireland for Coolmore, the world’s most powerful racing and breeding operation. Coolmore’s archrival, Dubai-based Godolphin Racing, entered longshot Enticed. The brilliant Chad Brown, America’s turf king and last year’s Eclipse Award winner, seeks his first Derby victory with last year’s 2-year-old champion, Good Magic.
Here’s Rule No. 1 on planet Earth, way back when, now and forevermore: The rich always get richer. With the decline of royalty, racing no longer is “the sport of kings,” but the movers and shakers are still furlongs ahead of the commoners.
A longtime racing writer recently asked Baffert if he thought the elite’s dominance of this Derby was “not necessarily good for the game.” Baffert sounded surprised by the notion. Considering he’s attained Mount Rushmore status, why would he feel that way?
“Well, I think it’s all due to success,” Baffert said. “It’s like anything else. If you have to go to a doctor, you’re going to go to a good doctor. If you have a good program . . . that’s why they hire us. You win, you’re going to get the good horses. You don’t win, you’re just not going to get them.”
It’s not as if Baffert and Pletcher were handed a bunch of million-dollar bluebloods when they went out on their own. Like D. Wayne Lukas, whom he grew up idolizing, Baffert worked his way up from quarter horse tracks in the Southwest. After Pletcher left his job as Lukas’ assistant in late 1995, he was no overnight success, scraping by for a few years with mostly cheap horses.
“If you look at all the big trainers, they all started out small,” Baffert said. “I started out with one horse. We all struggled. It didn’t happen overnight. Todd and me, we did it seven days a week year round. We made sacrifices. I don’t go anywhere. I don’t take vacations. And that’s why I’m successful. We’re all very competitive and we want to be at the top.”
Some say having so much power in the hands of a few is bad for racing. Maybe in the best of all possible worlds, but not this one. Enjoy the show, and don’t hate on the worldwide leaders who put it on. Without them, big-time racing couldn’t run. And when you cash a ticket on a horse bred, owned and trained by a member of the 1 percent, you don’t feel guilty, do you?