My Kentucky Oaks day began as it has for the past 15 years or so. I drove to the Crowne Plaza Hotel, formerly the Executive West, to speak to the Los Angeles tour group run by Jane Dempsey. Her parents started doing this back in the 1950s, and Jane inherited it. Sometimes she brings along a Derby old-timer who hasn't been back to Louisville for many years. A few years ago, her special guest was Ray York, who rode Determine to victory in the 1954 Derby.
I enjoy doing this because often the group includes some racing fans who have never been to the Derby. I try to give them a bit of the event's flavor and history, along with a couple of personal stories from my 48 years of covering the event. Then I give them my Derby picks.
I told them what I'm sure they wanted to hear: California Chrome, easy winner of the Santa Anita Derby, might just be a super horse. But I hedged my pick by cautioning that nobody knew if Chrome, who has been having his way with short fields in California, could handle the adversity he is sure to face in the Derby. If he gets bumped around or trapped in traffic, will he be able to handle it?
On my way out, I was stopped by a guy who said he had been talking to a man from England whose company has the insurance on Wicked Strong, named in honor of the Boston Marathon survivors. He impressed a lot of horsemen with his victory in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.
"The owner and the trainer are really, really high on him," the guy said. "They're not worried about the post."
Wicked Strong will break from No. 19 on the far outside. He almost will be forced to drop back in the pack, where the traffic is the heaviest. But maybe he's good enough to do. That's what I was pondering as I drove from the Crowne Plaza to the media parking lot at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, where I caught the shuttle -- a yellow school bus -- to the track.
My employer du jour was WAVE 3 News, the Louisville affiliate of NBC, which owns the rights to the Triple Crown races. I go back a long way with WAVE. As a school kid in the early 1950s, I remember watching Uncle Ed Kallay on the kids' shown named "Funny Flickers." I also recall a boxing show named "Tomorrow's Champions" in which I first saw a cocky kid named Cassius Clay.
I was assigned to the winner's circle, where I was to help Connie Leonard interview somebody from the winning team after each of the first seven races. Although I have a face made for radio, I tried to spiffy up for television. I wore my pink sportcoat in honor of breast-cancer survivors, the honored guests on Oaks Day, and a snap-brim hat passed on to me by Drew Deener, my radio partner this week on ESPN680.
(I interrupt this column to put in a plug the Catholic Sports Network, for whom I am executive editor. We have expanded from covering high school and college sports to include a local kid who's an aspiring NASCAR driver. My mission is to find a way to get us involved in horse racing. We now return to our regular columnizing).
When you're doing TV, you just don't grab a microphone and start talking. You have to be hooked up with a battery pack and an earpiece sort of like the one Secret Service agents wear. The battery pack is plugged into a box from which spring long, black cables. As Connie and I did our minuet around the winner's circle, the cables kept wrapping themselves around my legs and we spent a lot of time untangling.
When we went on the air at 10 a.m., it was warm and sunny. By the time my gig was up at 2:30 p.m., the sun had been hiding behind clouds for hours and the temperature seemed to have dropped by at least 10 degrees. Connie wore a light coat thinking she would doff it early in the afternoon. Instead, she wished she had worn something warmer.
We got some nice breaks on our interviews.
The first race winner was ridden by Rosie Napravnik, the talented female jockey who had the mounts on the favored Untapable in the Oaks and the longshot Vicar's in Trouble in the Derby. The women in my family love Rosie. So I had to gush, "Rosie, my granddaughters Caroline and Lucy will be so impressed that I'm here with you." Granddads have no shame.
In our interview, Rosie said she was disappointed when Vicar's in Trouble drew the rail for the Derby, but glad she got a break from a couple of horses were scratched. Now she will get to break from the No. 2 post in the Derby, which, she said, "will give me a little more wiggle room."
The winner of the third race was trained by Carl Nafzger, who's only one of my favorite people in the world. We got to know each other in 1990, when Carl won the Derby with Unbridled. Before the race, the network hooked him up with a microphone, which enabled it to get some of the best footage in racing history – Carl calling the stretch run for Mrs. Frances Genter, the 90-year-old who owned Unbridled.
At the time I was writing mainly for Sports Illustrated, and I talked them into letting me do a feature on Carl. A professional rodeo cowboy before he got into training horses – he rode bulls – Nafzger had a colorful story to tell. In January, I called and gave him the following message:
"Carl, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that the magazine is going to run the story. The bad news is that it's in the swimsuit issue, which means that nobody will ever read it."
In 2007, Carl won the Derby again, this time for Jim Tafel, his longtime friend and patron. I was in the smile line that day. He doesn't have a Derby horse this year, so I asked him to give his professional, unbiased opinion about who was going to win the 140th Run for the Roses.
"I liked Wicked Strong," he said. "I really liked his race in the Wood."
Jeez. That was my second tip of the day on Wicked Strong. I grabbed my program and began to seriously rethink my Derby picks.
Our next subject was jockey Corey Nakatani, who won the fourth race on Layton Register. He has ridden in more Derbies without winning than any rider in history (0-for-16). On Saturday, he will ride Dance With Fate, the surprising winner of the Blue Grass Stakes.
Corey has a fascinating back story. During World War II, when there was widespread concern that the Japanese might attack the West Coast, the government shamelessly rounded up a lot of Japanese-Americans in southern California and interned them in a makeshift "detention center" at Santa Anita race track. It was racism done in the name of national security.
The Blue Grass was Corey's first time aboard Dance With Fate. He loved the way his horse handled the Polyturf at Keeneland and came from off the pace to win. He was shipped back to Santa Anita and had a monster work before being shipped back to Kentucky for the Derby.
"I think he's going to run a big race," Corey said.
We talked to another jock, Robby Albarado, after he won the sixth race with Marchman. In 2010, Albarado won the Spiral Stakes with Animal Kingdom and was scheduled to ride him back in the Derby. But he was injured just before the race, and, rather than take a chance on his physical condition, Team Valor principal owner Barry Irwin replaced him with John Velasquez.
So Albarado watched the Derby from the jockeys' room, and one can only imagine his feelings as he watched Velasquez guide Animal Kingdom to victory. Maybe the Derby gods owe him one, and maybe they don't, but he should have a great shot Saturday with Medal Count, who's trained by Louisville native Dale Romans.
For months, Romans has been telling anybody who would listen that Medal Count is the best horse he ever trained – and that's saying a lot considering he has won the Preakness and other major races. The Derby will be the colt's third race in 30 days, following his victory in Keeneland's Transylvania Stakes on April 4 and his second in the Blue Grass Stakes eight days later.
"I really like him a lot," Albarado said.
Now I was thoroughly confused. When my TV gig was over, I retreated to see if I could make some sense of this mess. Everything revolves around California Chrome, who was brilliant in California. If he is as good here as he was out there, he wins the Derby convincingly. But if he's not, it's as wide-open as the Derby has ever been.
I think I'm going to bet against California Chrome. I'm going to put Medal Count, Intense Holiday, and Wicked Strong in an exacta box. I will send out a bulletin if the racing gods send me another vision between now and post time for Derby 140.