Not a lot of speed in this Kentucky Derby

If you love the pageantry and color of the Kentucky Derby but just wish the excitement could last a little longer, the 137th edition of the world's greatest horse race is made for you.

There are several words that can describe the 20 thoroughbreds that will leave the starting gate for the 11th race at Churchill Downs late Saturday afternoon. "Beautiful" is one of them. "Expensive" is another. But the operative word as it pertains to the running of the race - using the verb generously - is "slow."

Uncle Mo, a Derby favorite until stricken with a stomach ailment, looked good during a morning workout Thursday.

The Most Exciting Two Minutes In Sports will drag on more than a tad past that time frame if the field stays true to its recent form. Even if the mixed forecast does not muddy the track, it's possible the winning time could drift over 2 minutes, 3 seconds on a fast surface for the first time in more than a decade.

There were upward of 30,000 thoroughbreds foaled in 2008, and not a single one of them appears to be a horse that will be long remembered, at least as far as the Triple Crown season is concerned.

That could change. A horse that has been unimpressive, or off its game lately, could rise up and announce itself on Saturday, and maybe parlay that victory into a chance to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978.

The numbers don't support that optimism, however, particularly the Beyer Speed Figure that is the standard for rating a horse's race performance while factoring in the vagaries of the track and conditions in which it took place. The Beyer is the invention of longtime Washington Post handicapper/savant Andrew Beyer, and he is so disgusted with the current 3-year-old crop that he might not even let them have his numbers.

Plenty of theories abound for the downturn in quality, which has become more frequent in recent years. Many of the most promising horses don't get to the Triple Crown series because they are bred too thinly, aiming for sheer speed over endurance. Their fragility takes them from the game as they are trained hard as 2-year-olds and then built up quickly to have a chance at the Derby's 11/4-mile distance.

Several stakes winners with good resumés are missing from Saturday's field, and perhaps the best horse entered, Uncle Mo, has been off his form since a championship 2-year-old season and might be scratched from the race as early as Friday morning. Mo has reportedly been battling a gastrointestinal infection, but the owner and trainer have been about as forthcoming with his actual health situation as the Flyers are with their injuries.

The morning-line favorite by default - early Derby betting opens Friday at 9:30 a.m. and will jumble the odds - is Dialed In, the winner of the Florida Derby, and one of only six horses in the field that have actually won a Grade I stakes race. (The others are Uncle Mo, Archarcharch, Brilliant Speed, Midnight Interlude, and Comma to the Top. Seven horses in the field have never even entered a Grade I race previously.)

Dialed In ran a 93 Beyer at the Florida Derby. A speed figure of 100 is usually considered the dividing line between a good outing and a special one. None of the winners of the major prep races this season reached that plateau. Archarcharch turned in a 98 at the Arkansas Derby, as did Nehro, which came in second by a neck in that same race. Those performances were the best of the lot. Only two horses in the field have ever earned 100 on the Beyer scale. Soldat's speed figure was 103 in a minor allowance race on slop in January, and Uncle Mo opened his career with a 102 last August at Saratoga, and romped home with a 108 figure in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in November.

But what have you done lately? None of these horses has much to say on that score. All things being equal, Archarcharch would probably be the favorite based on his Arkansas performance and Uncle Mo's iffy status, but Archie drew the inside post position for the Derby's cavalry charge, a spot that all but eliminates a horse's chances. Lookin at Lucky, the best of the 2010 crop, suffered that same fate in the Derby.

The surest bet for Saturday is that one of these horses has to win and will gain at least momentary fame. That happened for Super Saver a year ago, a colt that had just two more races in its career, neither in the money, and was retired in November with four aching and inflamed cannon bones, which is the over.

Even more than usual, picking the winner of this annual crapshoot is a difficult task. Nearly 400 colts and fillies were nominated for the Triple Crown series, the sport's equivalent of a seat license, and for the eighth straight year, 20 of them are entered in the Derby. The entry fee is $25,000, and then it's another $25,000 if your horse actually runs the race. Horse owners pay it gladly, because, well, because it's the Kentucky Derby. Where else would they rather be?

If you want to take a shot at the office pool, or a flyer at the windows, and if the track is wet, consider Brilliant Speed, a Dynaformer colt, or Soldat. On a fast track - and if the price is appealing - Midnight Interlude, the Santa Anita Derby winner, is worth a look, as are Nehro and Mucho Macho Man. Dialed In and Uncle Mo will get a lot of action, but the odds probably won't be very enticing. Wish I could make a case for the fabulously named Pants On Fire, but couldn't do it.

Regardless, it will be the Derby. The band will play, the television cameras will seek out pretty ladies wearing outrageous hats as they sing "My Old Kentucky Home." People will drink bourbon mixed with sugar water. The horses will run as quickly as their talents allow.

And this year, you'll probably get to enjoy the spectacle even longer than usual.


Bob Ford:

Kentucky Derby

Saturday at Churchill Downs

Post time: 6:24 (NBC10)

Craig Donnelly analyzes the Derby field. C3.


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