LOUISVILLE, KY. — Louisville, Ky.-- --When a suicidal early pace exhausted the best horses in the Kentucky Derby last year, a 50-1 shot named Giacomo came from behind to win.
The result was a certifiable fluke (Giacomo hasn't won since) that underscored one of the fundamental laws of America's grandest horse race:
The faster they run in the first mile of the 1 1/4 -mile event, the more unpredictable the race becomes.
With a blistering early pace all but certain to develop again today at Churchill Downs, the 2006 Derby looms as perhaps the hardest to decipher in years.
"I think it might be the toughest Derby ever. Who knows who will win?" said jockey Kent Desormeaux, who will ride Maryland-based Sweetnorthernsaint today.
Who knows, indeed?
You can ask that question before any race at any track, but this is a Derby with an unusually deep field of quality contenders. One of the 20 entrants, Lawyer Ron, has won six straight races, and another, Barbaro, has a 5-for-5 career record including a Florida Derby victory, yet neither is the favorite. The top choice, at 3-1 on Churchill Downs' morning line, is Brother Derek, a fleet California colt.
But is everyone wildly in love with the favorite? Hardly. Out of 22 experts polled by the Daily Racing Form, 21 picked horses other than Brother Derek to win.
Dan Hendricks, trainer of Brother Derek, says half the horses in the field have "a really legitimate chance." Michael Trombetta, trainer of Sweetnorthernsaint, says the seven or eight top horses are "no more than a length apart." Barclay Tagg, who won with Funny Cide and starts a colt named Showing Up today, says he has never seen a tougher Derby field. Desormeaux says "five or six" horses easily could win.
The only certainty is that one of trainer Bob Baffert's three horses, Sinister Minister, is going to break fast from his inside post (4) and run the early portion of the race in a wild-eyed fury. He can't help himself, it seems.
"We've tried to teach him to run behind other horses, but he hates it," Baffert said.
So, off he goes. And as luck would have it, Keyed Entry, the field's other hopelessly hooked sprinter, has drawn a starting post right next to Sinister Minister, meaning he'll have a perfect view of the likely frontrunner's start, and almost surely will try to run with him.
"Is Sinister Minister going to set fire to the racetrack?" Desormeaux was asked yesterday.
"Oh, yes," said the jockey, a two-time Derby winner, "and I'm sure at least one other horse is going to go right with him."
That means we should expect early fractions in the neighborhood of last year's ridiculous 45 1/5 seconds for the first half mile - a hellbent pace guaranteed to eliminate any horse that gets too excited and tries to keep up, exhausting him long before the stretch run.
That scenario brought down Afleet Alex, the colt who would prove to be the best of last year's Triple Crown horses, winning the Preakness and Belmont; he rallied to take the lead late in the Derby stretch, but, having already sprinted so hard, ran out of gas and faded to third.
It was his failure that opened the door for Giacomo, but it's doubtful another 50-1 shot such as Deputy Glitters or Seaside Retreat will win today. There's just too much depth and balance in this year's field, which includes a veritable fleet of quality horses that love to "stalk" - lay close to the lead and then charge through the stretch run.
Some of the best stalkers might run out of gas, but with so many running, not all will.
"I'm not as concerned about the size of the field as I am about the pace and the fact that there are a lot of good horses that like to stalk," Hendricks said.
In theory, fast-closing horses such as Point Determined, a 12-1 shot trained by Baffert (and bred in Maryland), and Sweetnorthernsaint, at 10-1, would seem to have the perfect style for the race as it is expected to unfold.
For bettors looking for a bigger score, Jazil and Steppenwolfer, each 30-1 on the morning line, also have shown the ability to charge hard down the stretch.
If the jockeys for Brother Derek, Lawyer Ron and Barbaro endure the fast early pace without exhausting their horses, they could be in front of everyone.
"For the racing fan, this has to be the best year I can remember to watch the Derby," Desormeaux said. "You're going to have that running horse [Sinister Minister] out first, and then you're going to have some big trains coming at him down the stretch with their engines blowing and pumping."
It says here that Point Determined will reach the finish line first, followed by Sweetnorthernsaint and Steppenwolfer.
But the faster they go, the weirder it could get.