Odds are, anyone can win Saturday's Kentucky Derby

Lew Freedman

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The most dramatic two minutes in sport -- the annual running of the 11/4-mile Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May -- is surrounded by a year's worth of speculation and anticipation.

Until the horses bolt from the starting gate, the Wednesday post-position draw and establishment of the official betting line is as close to substance as horse racing fans get.

The morning line is out: oddsmaker Mike Battaglia, establishing the favorite for his 40th Derby, anointed California Chrome as the 5-2 favorite.

"It's 40 years, but it never gets old," Battaglia said.

However, it should be noted that Battaglia is not Nostradamus. Since the favorite rarely wins, Battaglia's shooting percentage would not impress the Miami Heat. Battaglia's opinion is built more around how he thinks the public will bet as opposed to which horse he believes will win.

Given the odds he announced for the 140th running of the most famous horse race in the United States, it almost seems as if Battaglia has concluded that nobody can win. There are 20 3-year-olds entered in the $2.2 million race, and no horses dominated during a spring of prep stakes races.

California Chrome won the Santa Anita Derby. Hoppertunity is the second favorite at 6-1, but didn't even race as a 2-year-old. This is like trying to become world champion and rookie of the year simultaneously, since no horse has won the Derby since 1882 without a 2-year-old racing season.

The third favorite is Wicked Strong at 8-1. Samraat, winner of the Withers Stakes and Gotham Stakes, who whinnies with a New York accent, was posted at 15-1. Trainer Todd Pletcher, this generation's Wayne Lukas for piling on the entries, has four horses in the race, including Danza at 10-1, the closest thing to a presumed front-runner.

This group of horses looms as a bunch of longshots. There are three horses listed at 50-1, three at 30-1, and four at 20-1. It may just be one of those years when there is no a singular sensation, even if there is a rising clamor for California Chrome.

The Derby track was soaked last year and earlier this week it poured in Louisville, situated just outside the region of the tornadoes that afflicted many southern states. A muddy track can derail two years' worth of training in two minutes, but the forecast is for sunny skies Saturday.

If the weather is equal, gate assignments may matter. Gate numbers 1 and 20, the inside and the outside, are so despised that in recent years the word "dreaded" precedes all mention of those spots.

The randomly drawn post positions found Vicar's In Trouble in the No. 1 slot. Jockey Rosie Napravnik, gunning to become the first woman to pilot a Derby horse to the crown, took the news as if she had just accidently plugged her index finger into a light socket.

"I was just kind of shocked," she said. "It's not a good deal to come out of the one hole."

Every jockey dreams of winning a Kentucky Derby and after a winning once, a jockey hungers for more. Three-time winner Gary Stevens retired from riding, went into TV work, then made a comeback at age 50 last year. His baldness shows his age, but Stevens is trim. He will be aboard 20-1 shot Candy Man.

Eating candy is horrible for his diet, but he grinned and thought of an exception.

"Sweet candy," Stevens said.

The championship kind. If Candy Boy crosses the finish line first, Stevens will indeed be an indulgent happy candy boy.


By LEW FREEDMAN
Daily News correspondent