LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Few scenes can equal a Derby week morning on Churchill Downs’ packed backstretch. On Wednesday you could see NCAA champion coaches Rick Pitino and Denny Crum, magnificent thoroughbreds and hundreds of visitors milling about, looking confused but content.
Pitino, who owns 5 percent of Santa Anita Derby winner Goldencents, sees racing as “an enjoyable business,” he said. “I call it a meaningful distraction for a tough game of life.”
It’s also a sport nobody can quite figure out, and no race is more inscrutable than the Kentucky Derby. Today they’ll run it for the 139th time. For two minutes, millions of people will pause, riveted on a 19-horse charge into chaos and history. Trainer Kelly Breen withdrew Black Onyx late Friday morning, and because he announced the decision after the 9 a.m. scratch time, the also-eligible Fear the Kitten will not run.
Trainer Todd Pletcher entered a record-tying five — undefeated Verrazano, Revolutionary, Overanalyze, Palace Malice and Charming Kitten — and will saddle them all. Watching them run is another story.
“I’ll do the best I can,” Pletcher said. “The Derby is a very hard race to watch, so I won’t try to focus on all of them. You can try to watch one horse, and I hope we have one alone at the eighth pole.”
As always, there are endless storylines:
• Will Verrazano emerge as a superstar or fail to stay 11/4 miles?
• Can Goldencents give Pitino’s golfing buddy, Doug O’Neill, a second consecutive Derby while Kevin Krigger becomes the first black rider to win it since 1902?
• Can Gary Stevens, at 50, and D. Wayne Lukas, 77, get a third Derby victory together, 25 years after their first?
Can Shug McGaughey, 62, finally get the roses with Orb?
• Can Rosie Napravnik be the first triumphant female jockey?
The weight of greatest expectations is on Pletcher, 45, who got off the Derby schneid three years ago with Super Saver. “Running five doesn’t mean you’re going to succeed,” he said. “It just gives you more chances. All it guarantees is that we’ll have at least four losers.”
The longtime Garden City, Long Island, resident said his 1-for-31 record isn’t an albatross. “Honestly, if you had told me when I started training in ’96 that I would have won one Kentucky Derby by the time I was 42, I would have said, ‘Sign me up.’ I just hope it doesn’t end that way.”