There will probably be about 160,000 fans in attendance at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, yet there’s one uninvited guest who we hoped would stay away but decided to pay an extended visit.
After months of prep races to determine the abilities of each starter in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, it is a little frustrating, to say the least, to watch Mother Nature sneak in between the Twin Spires with steady rain Saturday that turned the main track muddy on Derby day.
Let’s take a few minutes to see who should benefit or suffer if there’s a wet or sloppy racetrack.
For starters, chalk players will be fine. Justify, the undefeated Santa Anita Derby winner and probable betting favorite, has experience on a wet track, even though it supposedly never rains in Southern California. The son of Scat Daddy romped by 6 ½ lengths in an allowance race at Santa Anita on March 11 over a racetrack rated muddy.
For the most part, the eight prospective Derby starters who have raced on a wet track have done well on it.
One race that stands out is the lone graded 3-year-old stakes with a Derby starter that was contested on a wet track. That was the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park on Feb. 19. My Boy Jack, who went on to capture the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, posted a 4 ½-length victory in the Grade 3 stakes over Combatant, a possible Derby starter, on a muddy track.
Flameaway and Firenze Fire are the only ones with more than one start on an off track. Firenze Fire won the Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct on Jan. 13 over a muddy track by a half-length, but was fourth on a wet-fast track labeled as good in the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga.
Flameaway won both of his starts on a wet track at 2, winning the Grade 3 Bourbon on Oct. 8 by a nose on a sloppy track and taking the Skidmore Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 18 by a length and a half on a muddy track. A key element with Flameaway’s wet-track wins is that they came in races washed off the turf, raising doubts about the quality of the competition in races that were originally scheduled to be run on a grass course.
Lone Sailor is in the same boat as Flameaway. His wet track effort was an 11-length blowout at Saratoga on Sept. 3 on a sloppy in another race that was moved from the turf course to a gooey main track.
Enticed found a muddy track waiting for him for his Sept. 4 career debut at Saratoga and promptly notched a length and three quarters victory.
Finally, Free Drop Billy ran on a wet-fast track at Saratoga in the Hopeful and finished second, beating Firenze Fire.
For everyone else, predicting their chances on a wet track will be based on the pedigree. In what is shaping up to be a spectacular Derby with a deep roster of talented horses, it is unfortunate to see Mother Nature make her presence felt in the starting gate?