No matter your politics – it is Kentucky Derby day

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After yet another week in which major political news never seemed to stop, it only seems right to try to step away from the latest urgent stories on Capitol Hill and at the White House, in order to focus on the most notable sporting event in the United States on the first Saturday in May.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Kentucky Derby.

Last year, I got lucky and picked the winner of the Derby – Always Dreaming.

Let’s see if we can find some ideas in the field for 2018 – and tell a few political stories along the way.

1. A race that rarely attracts the President. The first Kentucky Derby was run in 1875 – Aristides was the winner that day. But it took until 1969 for a sitting President of the United States to venture to Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky to see one of the most famous horse races in the world. Richard Nixon was on hand to see Majestic Prince win, and this great Associated Press photo shows the Nixons and Reagans in the crowd that day.

2. See if you can spot any politicians. The last time I was at the Derby, it wasn’t hard to find elected officials in the crowd. On one trip to Churchill Downs, I ran into Sen. Wendell Ford (D-KY) at my hotel on race day – he told me in no uncertain terms to, “Get it on, son. Get it on.” One year my father ran into a big city mayor who didn’t go to the betting window. Why? This mayor figured someone would claim he was spending taxpayer dollars, so he had his wife make his bets for him.

3. Before we get to the horses, we go gonzo. The Kentucky Derby may also be the birthplace of ‘Gonzo Journalism,’ as practiced by the late Hunter S. Thompson. The winner of the 1970 Derby was Dust Commander, but the literary winner of that race was Thompson’s wild story of covering the Derby scene, along with an English sketch artist named Ralph Steadman. “Just keep in mind for the next few days that we’re in Louisville, Kentucky. Not London. Not even New York. This is a weird place,” Thompson – a Louisville native, advised. Steadman is still sketching, and Thompson’s “Gonzo” story lives on. Do yourself a favor and read it. Then move on to Thompson’s, “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 1972.”  I carry a dog-eared copy of that with me on the campaign trail at all times.

4. Pick a number, pick a horse. There are 20 horses in the Derby, which can make for a wild scene as they break from the two different gates at Churchill Downs. If you just want to go with a favorite number – or a favorite name – here’s the field, you can start making your selections right now:

5. What about the odds and the colors? Don’t worry, we got you covered there as well. Some people like to pick their favorite color on the jockey’s silks – and that can work just as well as reading all the details out of the Daily Racing Form. Take this link to the Kentucky Derby website and check out the latest numbers – and colors.

6. The fastest Derby winner is still Secretariat. 45 years ago, Secretariat not only won the 1973 Kentucky Derby, but set the record for the race, overcoming Sham to win in 1 minute, 59 and two-fifths seconds. The Triple Crown winner that year, Secretariat also still has the race record for the Belmont and the Preakness – though, the Preakness record wasn’t given to him for many years (another story for another day). Watch Secretariat win the 1973 Derby, and break the track record by three-fifths of a second, of Northern Dancer.

7. The curse of Apollo. In 1882, a horse named Apollo won the Derby – the only horse to win after not racing as a two-year old. This year, the favorite in the Derby is Justify – he didn’t run as a two-year old. Neither did another quality horse, Magnum Moon. It’s been 126 years – is this finally the time that another horse will join Apollo and win the Derby, while not having raced as a two-year old?  Both Justify and Magnum Moon are good horses. I’m tempted to bet them.  But that curse makes me thinks twice.

8. Do you bet the favorite in the Derby? In theory, you could just put $2 to win on every horse – that would cost you $40 – and get your winner that way in the Derby. Or you can go over the Daily Racing Form with a fine tooth comb to see what the speed figures will tell you, and figure out your choice. One note is that the Kentucky Derby betting favorite has been the actual race winner the last five years in a row, so the betting public has known what they were doing. The trainer of Justify – this year’s favorite – is Bob Baffert, who has had his share of victories – and heartbreak – in America’s biggest races.  I remember being on the rail at Belmont when Baffert’s horse Real Quiet lost to Victory Gallop by a nose.  I will never forget the hush that came over the crowd when the Triple Crown had been snatched away in the final strides.  And yet Baffert stood there in the late day sun, well after the race had ended, and signed autographs for inveterate gamblers like myself.

9. How about a long shot? There’s nothing better than thinking that you could put down a couple of bucks and emerge with several crisp C-notes after the Derby is over. As I’m writing this piece, 8 of the 20 horses have odds of over 50-1; that means if you bet two dollars, you’ll get back more than $100 for a winner. So here’s a few to think about: Noble Indy won the Louisiana Derby. Hofburg (a horse I like), has only raced three times. Flameaway likes to stalk just off the pace, which can be a winning style at Churchill Downs. Or there is Free Drop Billy, who was bothered in stretch in the Blue Grass Stakes. Everyone has an opinion.

10. Now, let’s get down to making a pick. Justify is the favorite. I’m going to throw him out and let the Curse of Apollo take care of the favorite. The foreign horse Mendelssohn won his last race in Dubai by 18 lengths, but foreign horses haven’t won many at Churchill. My Boy Jack has Kent Desormeaux up, who can spin a victory out of nothing. Good Magic won the Blue Grass and has solid credentials. You can make the case for a number of horses. But I’m going to stick with my first read and take #5 Audible, along with #9 Hofburg, with Free Drop Billy closing from the clouds. I won last year, that probably won’t happen again in 2018. But have fun. Make a mint julep, and enjoy Derby Day, and if you ever get the chance to go – do it.   Here’s the Daily Racing Form line on Audible.  Third at Belmont in his first race, broke his maiden at Aqueduct, won an optional claiming race the next month, then went to Gulfstream Park for two wins.  I may look smart at 7 pm ET on Saturday, or my tickets may be crumpled up and tossed on the floor.