Guest Column: It’s Derby Time Again: The Protagonists

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This year is the 142nd running of America’s most famous and iconic race, the Kentucky Derby, and once again there is feverish speculation amongst fans and punters as to who the winner is likely to be. The million dollar question is can the current crop of three year olds emulate American Pharaoh and give the country another hero and Triple Crown winner?

The Kentucky Derby holds a place of great affection in the hearts of American racing fans. Traditions such as hat wearing and sipping on mint julips have become time-honoured favourites. You need to go back to 1872 where the genesis of the race came together courtesy of Merriweather Lewis Clark, the grandson of the famous Lewis & Clark explorers. Travelling to the UK and attending the Epsom Derby, Clark was so inspired by the great race, that he decided to emulate it back home in America. With help from several prominent relatives including his uncles John & Henry Churchill who gifted him the land in Louisville, Kentucky, and along with a group of racing fans formed the Louisville Jockey Club. In 1875 they sponsored the very first Kentucky Derby. Attendance at the first Derby was estimated at 10 000 people and fifteen horses made up the first field, two of them fillies. Aristides was the first winner of the event, and he went onto further racing glory, and a life size bronze statue of him stands in the clubhouse gardens.

Over the years the Derby has undergone several changes, from the shortening of the race, to the time-honoured tradition of draping the winner with a garland of roses, causing people to nickname the race ‘the run for the roses”. In 2015, American Pharaoh broke a 37 year drought of Triple Crown winners stretching back to Affirmed in 1978, when he grabbed the Derby en route to his heroics in the Preakness and Belmont.

There are several top colts in the field who have put up their hands for a crack at glory, and these are my top picks for the Derby, for what it’s worth. Top of the list among contenders is Nyquist, the son of Uncle Mo, a top second season sire, the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and multiple Grade One winner is favourite to win. The tall chestnut has won races from any and all positions and if he is anything like his sire who was undefeated in his 2 year old season, then the omens are good. Next is Exaggerator who recently won the Santa Anita Derby (Gr.1) on a sloppy track and who shows great pace and patience in stalking the frontrunners. With earnings of $1 million, he is a worthy opponent and should never be underestimated. The striking grey Moyhamen whose name means “dominant”, is one of Nyquist’s biggest rivals, even though he didn’t “fire” in the Florida Derby, coming a distant fourth from the charging Nyquist, his five wins streak shows that he has plenty of fight in him come Derby day.

Forever a “bridesmaid” in recent runs, the precocious Grade One winner at 2 (Los Alamitos Futurity Stakes), Mor Spirit is worthy and serious contender. Trained by Hall Of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, the son of Eskendereya shows tremendous courage and determination and the word is from his camp -underestimate him at your peril! Last of the top colts, is Gun Runner, a Grade 2 winner, who has four wins from five starts at the track, and is the second highest earner with $1.6 million in earnings to date.

Whether the fickle weather will factor in the race for the horses remains to be seen, the forecast is for better weather which should make for an interesting race. Will we see another Triple Crown hero emerge from the shadows? It’s hard to predict, but with the current crop of runners, anything is possible. One way or another, it should be a great day’s racing and pay tribute to the noble horse for which the race is famous.

“Lisa Barrett”, her psuedonym, currently works at a stud farm in the KZN Midlands. She is absolutely and totally crazy about horses and every aspect of them. She is fascinated by every aspect of the racehorse business, especially pedigrees and would like to one day write a book on her favourite sire!

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