-- LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Steve Coburn, whose California Chrome is the favorite for the most famous of races, said the Kentucky Derby is a "done deal," and the racing gods wept. Or at least that explains the showers this week.
Many people subscribe to the theory that some deity or perhaps a fraternity of deities -- maybe even a sorority -- looks over the Kentucky Derby. The theory arises from the hope that everything, even the seemingly inexplicable, has an explanation, a reason and a purpose. Or maybe -- well, the racing gods have it all in their control, but they're especially focused on the Kentucky Derby.
They'll even encourage some horses into the winner's circle and block others, or so goes the thinking. And how could you doubt their divine intervention if, for example, you saw Unbridled win the 1990 Kentucky Derby as trainer Carl Nafzger described the race for the horse's 92-year-old owner, charmingly venerable Frances Genter. The racing gods obviously decided that Genter must win, that the Derby would be the culmination of a lifetime's dedication to the sport, a career-topping cherry atop her sportsmanship. Lil E Tee and Cal Partee, Grindstone and W. T. Young and Sea Hero with Paul Mellon and Mack Miller -- they were all destined, weren't they, to win the Kentucky Derby? The racing gods intervened, didn't they, smoothed the path a little, opened up a hole for Lil E Tee, put a little moisture in the surface for Sea Hero and added a few whiskers to Grindstone's nose.
And so, what will they do Saturday? Whose destiny in their hands will find roses? Well, candidates are numerous.
Surely the racing gods have a soft place in their collective heart for Art Sherman, the 77-year-old trainer of California Chrome, the Derby favorite. In 1955, Sherman, who was Swaps' exercise rider, accompanied the great horse to Kentucky from California. Exercise rider, jockey and trainer -- Sherman has done it all in a long career, and a Derby victory could be his just reward.
But the Derby is never a "done deal," and the racing gods tend to frown on those who underestimate its challenge or make any assumptions about events that are so obviously in the their hands. They might even encourage speedy California Chrome to involve himself in a lively pace debate, which could seriously compromise his chances. If that happens -- well, there are other candidates for the racing gods' favor.
There's Samraat, for example, the King of Queens, whose owner, Leonard Riggio, is known for his philanthropy and whose trainer, Rick Violette, is one of the game's most eloquent and intelligent spokesmen. Or the racing gods could happily smile on Uncle Sigh, whose ownership group includes Wounded Warrior Stables. It donates 10 percent of the horse's earnings to the Wounded Warrior Project.
Perhaps, though, the racing gods will feel compelled to honor a debt to jockey Robby Albarado. In 2011, when entries were taken, Albarado was named to ride Animal Kingdom, but he was injured that very day, on Wednesday of Derby Week, in a post parade accident. John Velazquez replaced Albarado on Animal Kingdom and, of course, won the Derby. In this 140th Derby, Albarado rides Medal Count, a horse that has trained eagerly and impressively all week.
You can almost picture the racing gods at this very moment debating the issue, can't you? Just as it looks as if they've hit an impasse and might table the issue for a year, somebody with an angelic countenance leaps to his winged feet and yells, "Hey, what about Jersey Joe?"
What about Jersey Joe Bravo indeed: He might be the most underrated jockey in the country -- but, of course, he's not underrated in Jersey, where he has won 22 riding titles at The Meadowlands and Monmouth Park. For three generations -- first his grandfather, Bartolo, and then his father, George -- a Bravo has been riding winners. Jersey Joe Bravo has the mount on Danza, the Arkansas Derby winner and another horse that has looked very sharp this week.
"And you guys call yourselves omniscient?" a racing god with a multitude of appendages interrupts. "To listen to all this palaver, somebody might think you never heard of The Chief. You guys are missing a wonderful opportunity here."
For 20 years, James Jerkens worked as the assistant to his father, trainer Allen Jerkens, the 85-year-old Hall of Famer aka The Chief. For the Derby, the younger Jerkens will saddle Wicked Strong, whose name honors the city of Boston and whose earnings, in part, go to help the victims and families of the Marathon bombing. And the big colt's owner, Centennial Farm, has been putting together partnerships and campaigning stakes horses for more than 30 years.
"Personally, I think we should see to it that Wicked Strong wins Saturday," the god of many appendages says. "He might be best, after all, and he'll benefit from a lively pace and come charging in the stretch so that all we have to do is clear a little path for him. Easy work. But I understand if you think that outcome's a little too predictable -- the race, after all, is supposed to be mysterious and inscrutable -- so I also wouldn't have any problem at all if my distinguished colleagues in the deity biz decide on Intense Holiday."
Yes, that would work: trainer Todd Pletcher teaming up with his all-time favorite partner on horseback, Johnny V., for a Derby win, and Starlight racing's partners celebrating triumphantly, their bonhomie flowing like champagne. Two years ago, Starlight seemed to have a Derby horse and superstar in the making with Algorithms, but, before the colt could fulfill his considerable promise, injury pushed him into retirement.
It has been 100 years since anybody from Louisville won the Derby. But it could happen here, with Intense Holiday. When Jack Wolf, who graduated from St. Xavier High School in Louisville, and his wife, Laurie, jumped into the sport, their first horse was Harlan's Holiday. He disappointed as the favorite in the 2002 Kentucky Derby. Afterward, they formed Starlight Racing, and, appropriately enough, they're returning to the Derby this year with a son of Harlan's Holiday.
And so, who will win the racing gods' favor and, along with it, the 140th Kentucky Derby? Well, I'd never be so presumptuous as to speak for the racing gods, but this is how I see the race:
1. Intense Holiday
3. Wicked Strong
4. Medal Count