Horse tales

A rundown of this year’s Kentucky Derby contenders

The 139th Kentucky Derby Mystery begins with a pair of standout favorites — the unusually named Orb and the neatly named Verrazano. Toss in a handful of promising contenders, a wild card from Ireland, and a real, live dark horse, and you’ve got another Derby head-scratcher. A confounding cast of 3-year-old thoroughbreds ready to write their names into history on the first Saturday of May. (If horses could, indeed, write.)

The new Kentucky Derby points qualifying system has worked to ensure all the top candidates have earned a starting spot in the race — in much the same way the former graded-earnings system did, only more interestingly. As expected, the thing has a couple kinks to be smoothed. There’s a fairness campaign afoot to improve the chances of fillies getting into the race, for one. But far more critical, one would think, would be a better way to qualify top foreign horses to a race advertised from its beginning in 1875 as “open to the world.” And that was before airplanes.

The interesting thing is that before these qualifying systems were inaugurated, the Derby mystery was seldom so deliciously complicated. At one time, most of the top 3-year-olds wintered in Florida or California, where they established a kind of pecking order. The owners of hopefuls that had repeatedly been thumped didn’t waste time traveling to Louisville to be thumped again.

Today, there is less repeated thumping, with aspirants fanning out from the suburbs of El Paso to the sidewalks of New York, in search of a way into the Derby. Each big race produces its own winner (often from large stables with multiple candidates), all arriving at Churchill Downs as contenders.

And who’s to say they’re not? The 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird prepped in New Mexico, of all places, winning the Borderland Derby at Sunland Park, just across the state line from El Paso. Super Saver (2010) blew in from Tampa and Hot Springs, and Animal House (2011) made the Kentucky Derby by winning at Turfway Park.

Tradition fought back last year as I’ll Have Another took the Kentucky Derby off a victory in the prestigious Santa Anita Derby. But it’s obvious that in modern times one needs a long list to cover Derby possibilities.

Fortunately, we have one.

A heavenly sphere

Beginning with Orb.

After losing his first three starts at age 2, Orb began winning as the races got longer. He came from behind to win the Fountain of Youth, then surged through the stretch again to draw away, winning the Florida Derby and looking every bit like a horse on the rise coming to the 1¼ miles of the Kentucky Derby.

Trainer Shug McGaughey grew up in Lexington and established his training career at Churchill Downs, then graduated to New York as the private trainer for the illustrious Phipps family stable. He handled Easy Goer, second to Sunday Silence in the 1989 Derby, and guided the filly Personal Ensign through an unbeaten career, topped with a memorable Breeders’ Cup triumph at Churchill Downs. McGaughey seems positively charged up over Orb.

“He’s more of a lanky, longer type of horse than some of these precociously bred types,” McGaughey told Newsday writer Ed McNamara. “It’s unbelievable how much he matured over the winter. I think that Orb on his best race probably wants to run a mile and a quarter, maybe even farther.’’

Orb is owned by Stuart Janney Jr. — whose parents owned the renowned filly Ruffian — and his cousin Ogden “Dinny” Phipps. They’re grandchildren of Mrs. Henry Carnegie Phipps, who founded Wheatley Stable in 1926.

The name Orb comes from the classical Greek — a heavenly sphere, referencing Orb’s sire Malibu Moon. The poet Alexander Pope sent orb into orbit: “Instruct the planets in what orbs to run.” Malcolm Lowry, the English novelist and punter, asked, “What magnetism drew these ruined creatures into his orbit.”

Which sounds pretty good for the Kentucky Derby.

Five Across

At Todd Pletcher’s Barn 32 at Churchill Downs, five sleek 3-year-old thoroughbreds are led out of the barn. They’re headed for the racetrack for morning gallops, but first the line-up. Each horse is held by a groom, each with an exercise rider aboard. All five sport trainer Pletcher’s signature white bridles, all done up with white padded wraps on rear legs. Remarkably, all five stand contentedly, well-schooled in the routine. Like a military dress review before heading into action.

“It’s a routine they learn and get used to,” says assistant trainer Whit Beckman. He steps between a pair to adjust a wrap, then pushes firmly on the nose of another to back him up a step. The horse is happy to oblige.

“They learn manners and get used to being around other horses,” Beckman says. “It’s a simple routine that works. For one thing, it gets you a chance to look them over out in the daylight, instead of under the shade of the barn.”

Lining horses up like that is a fairly unique sight at any racetrack, and on pre-Derby mornings, photographers click cameras and onlookers gather nearby to gawk. Cool to see, and you can tell the horses thrive on it. But it takes time and costs money, considering the amount of manpower needed. Something for the richer stables, mostly.

Of course, the Pletcher stable is certainly rich, at least its horses and their owners. The monthly training bill — let’s just say you wouldn’t want to get one. But Pletcher’s tremendous success may be worth it. Consider this morning’s line-up of five, Derby contenders all.

There’s Overanalyze (winner of the Arkansas Derby), Palace Malice (second in the Blue Grass), Revolutionary (Louisiana Derby winner), Charming Kitten (third in the Blue Grass) and Verrazano (Wood Memorial winner and likely betting favorite in the Kentucky Derby).

They all stand nicely. “You expect it,” says Beckman. “They’re all high bred. All high-class horses. It’s in their blood.” The consistency of routine helps, too, Beckman notes. That includes flying to tracks hither and yon to compete in the most important stakes races. One would think that’s an edge coming to the Kentucky Derby.

Verrazano is an intriguing favorite, an undefeated but lightly raced horse, who made his first start just four races ago, in January. He won his first start by 7 lengths and second by 16 but was down to just a half a length’s margin in winning his last, the Wood Memorial, in New York.

“That’s all he needed,” says jockey Johnny Velazquez, who is probably America’s No. 1 big-race rider. “Those other horses (Normandy Invasion and Vyjack) came to him, but they weren’t going to get him.”

The goal, Velazquez says, wasn’t to see how much Verrazano could win by in New York, but to prepare for the Kentucky Derby. “I just showed him the whip, and he accelerated and put them away.”

In recent years, Velazquez has been slated to ride several Derby favorites, all of whom went wrong somehow and missed the race. But he doesn’t have to ride favorites. Fans will recall Velazquez deftly piloting 20-1 shot Animal Kingdom from 12th place to win the 2011 Derby. Like all the best riders, he knows where to place a horse and when to make his move.

That expertise might be important for an inexperienced horse like Verrazano. One of the Kentucky Derby’s most famous facts is that since Apollo won the Derby in 1882, no horse has won the race without having raced at the age of 2, as Verrazano did not. But that’s probably less about experience than building a solid physical foundation.

Apollo, by the way, might have missed running at 2, but ended up winning 24 of 55 starts, 48 of 55 times in the money. A good horse sometimes can do things others can’t.

Verrazano descends from Hail to Reason, as have several other Kentucky Derby winners. He does not have much deep-distance blood, but names five generations back include greats Sea Bird, Buckpasser, Secretariat and Dr. Fager. That would be a good stable. Going against him, however, is the fact that sire More Than Ready is known for producing turf sprinters and milers, not distance champions. Overall pedigree evaluation for Verrazano: Not impossible for the Derby, and way better than many in the field.

Like the name, too. Verrazano salutes New York City’s Verrazano Narrows Bridge, which spans the entrance to the Hudson River, found by the Florentine explorer Giovanni da Verrazano in 1524.

Coach O’Neill and Coach Pitino

Probably next in the betting will be Goldencents, the winner of the Santa Anita Derby for trainer Doug O’Neill. Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino owns a small percentage in the horse. It’s his third starter in the Kentucky Derby.

Of course, you know, and I know, that Pitino’s basketball coaching prowess won’t make Goldencents win the Kentucky Derby. But Pitino is red hot coming off an NCAA championship — and hot is a very good thing to be at the racetrack.

If one wished to apply a basketball term to the horse, it would be fast break. Goldencents can scoot. That might be good if young rider Kevin Krigger can marshal the colt’s speed farther than he’s bred to go.

Krigger is a native of the U.S. Virgin Islands, of African-American descent. He’s met Pitino and says he watched every Louisville game in the tournament. But horseracing remains his game.

“I was looking at some of the pictures (of the Santa Anita Derby) taken from the inside,” Krigger says. “They have a shot on the Internet with him crossing the wire from the inside, and I don’t know who’s smiling more, me or the horse.”

The rank and file

Back to the Pletcher Five, we would rate all behind Verrazano.

Based on bloodlines, Overanalyze would seem up against it at a mile-and-a-quarter, and Charming Kitten would have the biggest performance leap to be a contender.

The Derby distance might not be beyond Revolutionary’s pedigree, though he runs more like a turf horse: bump along in the pack, then sprint to the wire. That’s fine on the grass, but doesn’t seem ideal for the long Churchill stretch: 1,234½ feet.

On the other hand, Revolutionary probably won’t have to run a foot farther than 1,234½ feet with Calvin Borel riding. As everyone knows, Calvin is fabulous at poking a horse’s nose between horses — sending them through to daylight. It’s like he emboldens them. So Revolutionary has a chance if the Derby is run a certain way.

The most interesting of Pletcher’s horses could be Palace Malice, who looked like he would win the Blue Grass until nailed at the wire by fast-closing Java’s War. Encouragingly, Palace Malice descends from the Raise a Native sire line, through his sire Curlin. Raise a Native line horses have 18 Kentucky Derbies, including 12 of the past 18 and four of the past five. On the other hand, Palace Malice is not bred for distance on his dam’s side, making him a question mark.

A better Raise a Native line steed might be Code West, with a strong dam’s side for stamina. But he’s right on the edge of points needed to get into the Derby.

While we’re on pedigree — and I know you hope we’ll never stop talking about it — distance questions could diminish the chances of prominent entrants Normandy Invasion, Will Take Charge and Govenor Charlie.

On the other hand, Normandy Invasion, by the sire Tapit, appears the picture of health grazing on the lawn behind Barn 42. Grazing isn’t really the right word. More like pulling a chair up to the table and dining.

“When he first got here, he wasn’t much interested in the grass,” says exercise rider Javier Herrera. “He doesn’t have this by his barn in New York so he wasn’t sure. But now, he loves it. You can see!”

Reports from Florida had Itsmyluckyday looking sharp training a mile in 1:43 over a slow track at Calder Park. Lucky seems to be professional-type racehorse who will likely hear his name called somewhere along the line in the Derby.

‘William gave us something to aim at’

American jockeys talk about the horses they ride, but European riders talk about each other.

“We have gone very slowly in the early stages (of previous races),” jockey Ryan Moore was explaining. “So I was quite happy to be handy and was able to get a nice lead from Hughesie until we turned in. My fellow was always traveling pretty strongly, and then William gave us something to aim at.”

That’s jockeys Richard Hughes and William Buick that Moore is talking about, and his “fellow” is a horse called Lines of Battle, who knew what to do from there. Lines of Battle went on to win the United Arab Emirates Derby. The U.A.E. Derby is the only overseas points qualifier for the Kentucky Derby, and Lines of Battle won the race convincingly.

And that’s just the encouragement trainer Aidan O’Brien needed. “We are very pleased with him,” O’Brien told the Racing Post, “and now will go to the Kentucky Derby.”

Of course, O’Brien has brought horses to the Kentucky Derby before — without a shred of success. Just last year he won the same race in Dubai and flew Daddy Long Legs half way around the world to run dead last in the Kentucky Derby. But we could have told O’Brien not to bother with Daddy Long Legs, a son of Scat Daddy, who labored home 18th in 2007.

Lines of Battle, though, possesses a plausible pedigree, especially through a dam that traces to the old Darby Dan and Idle Hour farm blood. I know, I hear you laughing: Foreign horses always lose big in the Kentucky Derby.

But that’s not strictly right. The horses the international farms have brought over recently have been kicked around because they’ve mostly been a sad lot of speedballs. They’ve got good horses in Europe. They just need to bring the right ones.

And don’t forget 1971 Derby winner Canonero II came to the United States from Venezuela by boat. Spent weeks in quarantine in Miami, rode an old van a thousand miles to Louisville, and won the Kentucky Derby — in style.

The traveling life of horses is nothing like that today. Lines of Battle was born in Kentucky, but is based in Ireland, and always flies first class to races. A flight to Louisville won’t seem much different to him than a flight to Dubai, except the refreshments might be better with a sprig of mint. The question is whether Lines of Battle will like the Downs dirt — and the other horses on it.

Nobody knows the answer to that riddle. But if Ryan finds a Hughesie to follow, and a William to aim at, his fellow might just run on.

A Dark Horse

Walk around the corner of Barn 41 — and right there’s a Derby horse that looks like his name: Black Onyx. Morning sunshine gleams off his black coat and lights the white stripe down his face.

But then handler Aurelio Gomez turns Black Onyx just a tad and suddenly the horse is no longer black — he’s brown, like dark Kona coffee.

Where did the black go? That’s the thing with his “dark bay or brown” horse color. Sometimes it’s closest to black.

Seattle Slew was a famous dark bay or brown horse, but his coat was almost opaque, absorbing light rather than reflecting it. Not many good photographs of him. Black Onyx is different. Light beams off him. And that might be a sign he’s brimming with health as the Kentucky Derby approaches.

Who is Black Onyx? Five weeks ago, Black Onyx blossomed in the Spiral Stakes at Turfway, but just as quickly fell back into obscurity as other horses won more vaunted Derby preps. After the Turfway triumph, trainer Kelly Breen sent Black Onyx straight to Churchill Downs with Gomez and Jose Orentes. Until this week, he was the only horse in Barn 41.

Like his sire Rock Hard Ten, Black Onyx is big and broad shouldered. Gomez says he stands well over 16 hands. If he were attending the Derby as a spectator, Black Onyx wouldn’t be one of those clubhouse dandies in a European-cut suit. He’d be the bare-chested guy hefting a keg into the Infield.

How will he do in the Derby? Who knows? He’s a Dark Horse.

The Projection

Most of the Derby Horses will make a final at-speed work over the ancient Downs dirt this weekend — and we’ll see who’s looking ready to Run for the Roses.

Then next week in this space, we’ll offer an official LEO Weekly Derby Selection. Last year it was I’ll Have Another. Maybe we’ll have another.