Shot at Kentucky Derby miracle lures horsemen in droves

There are good reasons why each spring a maximum of 20 horses line up in the starting gate of the Kentucky Derby. History shows us time and again that the best horse doesn’t always win, but the luckiest one does.

I still can’t explain 2009 Derby winner Mine That Bird, who won at 50-1 odds and then never won another race. His highest Beyer rating before the Derby was a paltry 81. Yet he exploded to a 105 at Churchill Downs.

Miracles do happen in Louisville. Thus, it’s understandable why sane owners and trainers go wacky with Derby fever. You can’t win it unless you’re among the 20 starters.

On Saturday, Uncle Mo, the heavy favorite in the Wood Memorial and for the Derby, did his best Secretariat imitation, finishing third in the Wood just as Big Red did in 1973.

Uncle Mo lost to one of the worst fields in Wood history. Trainer Todd Pletcher blamed the poor race on a "GI tract infection," but the colt is still being pointed to the Derby.

Uncle Mo might get well and win the Derby, also like Secretariat, but 19 others want to see him prove it.

This brings us to two more Derby preps Saturday, the Blue Grass at Keeneland and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. The entry boxes were full with 25 starters in the two stakes. Horsemen are scrambling to win enough graded earnings to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.

The stronger group appears to be in Arkansas. The Factor is the horse to beat at Oaklawn and has inherited the Derby favorite’s role from Uncle Mo.

I think two Afleet Alex-sired colts — Sway Away and Elite Alex — have a puncher’s chance to upset The Factor. Both horses will be wearing blinkers for the first time.

Sway Away knocked out a tooth at the start of the Rebel, which might have led to a poor finish. He’ll have a new jockey in Pat Valenzuela. While The Factor is a question mark at nine furlongs, these two long-winded colts are not.

One word sums up the Blue Grass field: parity. All 12 horses look alike. Only three starters have run an 86 Beyer or faster: Crimson China, Santiva and Sensational Slam.

Anyone can win it in this slow group. My choice is Crimson China, who has run three strong races over a synthetic surface, which Keeneland has. And he’s getting good at the right time.

Richard Eng’s horse racing column appears Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at rich_eng@hotmail.com.

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