I love the Kentucky Derby.
Since I have been a kid, the first Saturday in May was a day I always circled on my calendar. Over the years, no matter what I have been doing, when it’s time for the Derby – I am watching, or at the very least listening.
There was a time I was at work and made a point of taking a break, rushing out to my car and finding the race on the radio.
There was another time I drove two hours to a satellite wagering facility to place a bet on the race (this was before internet wagering).
I have snuck into a bar during a wedding to get my two minute fix. Finally, I was married in Las Vegas in 2002 on Friday after the Kentucky Oaks (a $12,000-plus win for me, thank you Farda Amiga) and taking in all that is Derby day was part of the honeymoon the next day. Yes, another win – hello War Emblem!
In case you were wondering, yes, I am still married!
I think you get it – I love the Kentucky Derby.
It was tough in 2020 thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic when the race was postponed from the first Saturday in May until the first Saturday in September.
It lost some luster being so late in the year and without any fans the vibe was certainly down. This year is even more depressing.
Honestly, this may be the least impressive field I have seen in a Kentucky Derby. In fact, I could make a case the Pat Day Mile earlier in the day for 3-year-olds, is every bit a talented field.
Throughout the prep season we saw horses that people gave a good chance to be a threat in the Derby drop by the wayside. The range came from horses that figured to be one of the favorites like Life is Good and Greatest Honour, to horses that came from off the radar to wise guy status like Concert Tour and Dream Shake.
Others that have dropped out of the Derby include Crowded Trade, Rombauer, Hozier, Proxy, Weyburn, and Caddo River.
Some have opted for the Preakness on May 15 or the Belmont on June 5. Others will be on the Derby undercard Saturday. While winning the Derby is still the ultimate win for many in the industry, for others the importance has waned.
Others have suffered injuries that will keep them from running and we are hopeful to see them on the track later this year.
What we are left is a field that features horses like Brooklyn Strong, a horse that was considered an outsider back in December, but thanks to all the defections, he now finds himself in the field.
Then again watch Brooklyn Strong (50-1) on the morning line, win the race. In many ways that would be the perfect winner Saturday. It would sum up what the last year has been like.
What is to blame for the quality of the Derby suffering?
I think a big part is 2020 which threw everything off kilter as far as the Derby was concerned. Some set their barns to have their runners set for the first Saturday in May and that went out the window.
When that disappeared, the series of races was torn up and a new path was put in place. This carried residuals from last year into this one and there was uncertainty initially as to when the Derby would be run this year, affecting many a barn and their horses.
The end result, at least for now, genuinely seems like the Derby is not the Holy Grail for 3-year-olds the way it once was.
Connections have fought tooth and nail to get a spot in the 20-horse field, but this year horses have gotten spots Saturday simply by existing and that is not good for the sport.
I will go into this Saturday excited for the race, but less so than in the last 20 years. Will the excitement of days gone by return? I think so and perhaps as early as next year.
As 2021 progresses more tracks are opening back up to race fans. Highly attended and anticipated races help bring the buzz so desperately needed for the beautiful sport that is horse racing.
We can get that as the year goes, hopefully coming back to more fans when the Breeders Cup takes place. From there we roll into 2022 and by the time the first Saturday in May rolls around, all will be good right with horse racing.
For now, all we can do is embrace this Saturday and the tradition that comes with the most exciting two minutes in sports!
Good luck everyone and have a good time Saturday!
By Dennis Miller