LOUISVILLE, Ky. – A trainer flooding the field with five horses. A black jockey trying to make history, and a woman rider, too. Louisville coach Rick Pitino seeking a double – champions in racing and basketball. He’s sure in the right place.
The 19-horse field for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby is balanced, with no definitive favorite.
Orb is the pre-race choice, just barely. Nearly overshadowed is his trainer, Shug McGaughey, who really, really wants this race. Doug O’Neill trying to win back-to-back. And then there’s the threat of rain, which has done in some of the best-laid plans on race day.
It sure looks like a topsy-turvy Derby.
“I don’t think we’ve got Secretariat in this bunch, even Seattle Slew,” four-time Derby-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas said, “so I think it’s going to boil down to the trip and the pace and a lot of other things.”
Todd Pletcher will saddle a record-tying five horses – undefeated and early second choice Verrazano, Revolutionary, Overanalyze, Palace Malice and Charming Kitten.
“We laid out a plan to get here with them, and it’s all come down pretty much like we hoped,” said Pletcher, who has one Derby win with 31 previous starters.
Verrazano is 4-0 in his young career, not having run as a 2-year-old. He’ll be trying to disprove an old Derby jinx: no horse since Apollo in 1882 has won without racing as a juvenile.
Relative unknown Kevin Krigger will be aboard Goldencents, trying to become the first black jockey to win since Jimmy Winkfield in 1902.
“I’m going to ride us the race that should get us to the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle,” Krigger said.
The colt is partly owned by Pitino, whose Cardinals won the NCAA championship last month. The coach recently got elected to basketball’s Hall of Fame, so a Derby win would complete the ultimate trifecta.
Rosie Napravnik wants to grab history for herself, too.
No female jockey has ever won the Derby, although she came closest, with a ninth-place finish in 2011. Napravnik will ride 15-1 long shot Mylute.
“He feels great, he’s acting great and I’m very confident heading into the Derby,” she said.
Orb was the narrow 7-2 early favorite for the 139th Derby. He comes in on a four-race winning streak for McGaughey, the 62-year-old trainer whose Hall of Fame resume lacks a Derby victory. He’s making his second appearance since 1989, when he finished second with Easy Goer.
“I hope the track is fast and safe for everybody and nobody has any excuses, and let the best horse win,” McGaughey said.
Goldencents will be trying to deliver for more than Krigger and Pitino. He’s trained by O’Neill, who put unknown Mario Gutierrez aboard I’ll Have Another last year and won. The trainer is following the same script this time, giving Krigger a big break while trying to become the first trainer to win back-to-back Derbies since Bob Baffert in 1997-98.
“We think it is our time,” O’Neill said. “We think it is us.”
Don’t look for the white-haired Baffert on Saturday. The three-time Derby winner isn’t saddling a horse this year, but like everyone, he had an opinion.
“Whoever has the heart will win it,” he said.
The forecast calls for an 80 percent chance of rain and a high of 59 degrees. The last Derby run on a sloppy track was in 2010.
“It’ll make the Derby that much more wide open,” said trainer Ken McPeek, who has two starters, Frac Daddy and Java’s War.
Lukas has two horses – Oxbow and Will Take Charge – ready for his 27th Derby. The four-time winning trainer planned to sleep soundly the night before.
“I don’t get uptight, don’t even get excited when they go in the gate,” he said.
At 77, Lukas would be the oldest trainer to win.
Oxbow’s jockey, Gary Stevens, will be pulling double-duty Saturday. He’ll ride in his first Derby since ending a seven-year retirement earlier this year, and then return to his job as a racing analyst on NBC’s telecast. The 50-year-old rider has won the race three times.
“You go out there with the highest hopes,” he said. “I’ve walked back too many times after the Kentucky Derby and it’s a disappointment if they don’t run their race. If we’re fortunate enough to win it, I know how to celebrate.”
Calvin Borel is one jockey always worth watching in the Derby. He and Revolutionary will break from the No. 3 spot in the starting gate, putting Borel near his favorite path on the track – the rail. The rider nicknamed “Bo-rail” for his fence-skimming rides has three Derby wins in the last six years.
“This is his home court,” Lukas said. “He does better here than anywhere else.”
Normandy Invasion can count on his own rooting section among the expected throngs at Churchill Downs. The colt named for the Allied assault on Normandy in World War II has four D-Day veterans backing him. They were flown in for the race by owner Rick Porter, and met the colt up close Friday.