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Kentucky Confidential


Who Do You Like?

Hey, coach, if you had to pick just one to win? Union Rags. (Eclipse Sportswire)

“Life just stops the week of Derby, and everything’s about the horses.” – Louisville resident Abigail Mueller

Standing outside Barn 33 on the backside of Churchill Downs, Mayor Greg Fischer confidently rattled off his selections for the big weekend.

“Union Rags,” he said, “and On Fire Baby for a little Oaks-Derby Double type thing.”

It’s Derby week in Derby City. Sudden experts on horse racing abound.

“I think it’s imperative as a Louisvillian that you’ve got a good line — a good, colorful line — so you can act like you’re an authority on the race,” Fischer said. “You say things like, ‘Look, this is one of the most wide-open races in the history of the Derby.’ Then people are like, ‘Really?’ And you say, ‘Oh, yeah, absolutely, anybody could win this race.’ If you’ve got a minute-long sound byte like that, it can get you through the whole week.”

Everyone’s trying to figure who will wear that blanket of roses, even folks who absolutely have no clue. Curious minds dream big at Derby time. “Who do you like?” and “Did you ever pick the winner?” That’s what people want to know.


Al Stall Jr., stabled here with a string of runners intended for the spring meet and no Kentucky Derby contender to complicate his weekend, sat in his tidy office and bemoaned every trainer’s fate at this time of year. Do non-racing friends expect him to predict the Derby winner simply because he’s a horseman?

“Do they?! My Gosh, do they ever!” he exclaimed. “To get away from that, I throw them some long shot just to get rid of them. But that backfired on me Giacomo’s year. Next thing you know he wins at 50-1, and they come right back, like kittens drinking milk.”

Stall’s first attended the Derby in 1977. He was 15. He picked Seattle Slew. He’s been to every Derby since.

“When you’re younger, you follow the chalk a little bit; when you’re older, you try to beat ’em,” Stall said.

Having picked other winners — Unbridled in 1990, for instance — the Louisiana-born horseman explained his theory that “system overload” makes it difficult to stick by your selection these days.

“Unbridled, I had him from day one; I didn’t waver,” he said. “I didn’t have any information aside from what I saw pre-HRTV, pre-TVG, on the regular channels and Racing Form with no internet, so I didn’t have much influence on me changing my mind. The internet, the horse racing channels, that’s what confuses everybody these days. These so-called experts give them a little knowledge, which is dangerous, and it makes people who are here all the time system-overload with information and all that does is lead to confusion.”

He recalled the year of his Unbridled selection, when his local New Orleans paper ran a glowing workout report featuring quotes from highly respected jockey Craig Perret.

“The way he described the horse’s work was just as good as it gets,” Stall said. “I said, ‘Well that’s it, then.’ I was firm as can be. We’d come up here — we were young — all we did was party all week and drink all week. We didn’t come out to the backside and see things that we might should have seen, like, ‘Union Rags had a tongue tie on yesterday!’ ‘Oh no, it’s not on today!’ We didn’t sweat the small stuff, put it that way.”

Cagey when asked for his selections this year, Stall said his Derby wagering methods have evolved with the times.

“I’ve gotten away from jumping on one horse,” he said. “Now since the fields are 20 horses I just turn into a superfecta junkie. I’d rather put, say, $1000 in the superfecta pool, than $1,000 to win on Union Rags at 4-1. That’s how I’ve changed, and I’m sure other people have, too.”


Hall of Fame basketball coach Denny Crum stood near the backside media center one day this week, pontificating on the matter:

“Everybody’s either asking me for information or wants to give me a tip, so by the time the first race rolls around I’ve got four tips and I’ve given out four tips and I’ve got my own thinking and I’m more confused than ever.

“I’ve been to the Derby 41 times, I know as much about it as most of these people do. I just try to shut them out. I do what I do. If I win, great. I’m not going to bet something I can’t afford to lose anyway.

“I take two or three of the favorites and two or three long shots, and play trifectas and superfectas, trying to hit lightning in a bottle.”

But Coach, if you had to pick just one horse …

“Union Rags.”


George Lindsey, Louisville radio morning show host and half of “The Lambert & Lindsey Show” on 102.3FM, recalls the year he picked a winner based on a supernatural tout.

“We’re here early in the morning, setting up. This guy comes walking by and honestly looks like he’s 115 years old. He comes by and is like, ‘The one horse in the Derby!’ I was like, ‘Oh, is that one gonna win?’ He’s like, ‘It’s gonna win.’

“We see him the next morning again as we’re setting up. He says, ‘The one horse in the Derby!’ I said, ‘I didn’t catch your name yesterday.’ He said, ‘You can call me Mister Cynical.’

“Long story short, the horse he gave me, the number he gave me, came rolling home on Derby day. I asked some friends out here, ‘Have you ever heard of a guy who calls himself Mr. Cynical?’ They’re like, ‘Yeah, he was an old-timey, race-tracky guy. He passed away a couple of years ago.'”

It was 1986. Ferdinand. The buzz horses Lindsey’s been hearing over and over again as he conducts his morning interviews? Hansen, Bodemeister and — you guessed it — Union Rags.


What does Joe Public have to say about selections this year?

There’s Uncle Merv, sneaking everyone onto the backside to watch morning works, telling you how Creative Cause is like the second coming of Secretariat except he’s gray, and Aunt Cheryl asking did you see “Secretariat,”[][][][ the movie, wasn’t that nice, so she’ll take the chestnut Rousing Sermon who actually is the same color as him.

There’s Grandpa Dean joking about the year he picked Thunder Gulch to win since the forecast called for rain and this year he’s going for Went the Day Well because who wants their day to go rotten, anyway?

There are kids who love Hansen because he’s white, like Pegasus, and kids who love Take Charge Indy because of … Calvin.

“I like the names,” said Abigail Mueller. “I’ll Have Another cup of coffee, I’ll Have Another dress, I’ll Have Another hat, I’ll Have Another of anything. I don’t usually bet, but I’ll bet on this one. I’ve got a feeling.”


You’d think that turf writers would have a handle on the Derby. After all, they cover racing year-round, but Monarchos was the last brilliant Kentucky Derby winner successfully touted by Tom Law, editor in chief of the industry trade Thoroughbred Times.

“I’m notoriously bad at this race,” he said. “The last time I had it really figured out was in 2001, 11 years ago. I happened to be at Gulfstream the day Monarchos won an allowance race, and I kind of latched onto the horse. I remember betting him in the future book; that was actually the last time I even made a future book wager.”

Law remembers his colleagues telling him in the press box, even on the day of the race, ‘We know you really like that horse, sorry, but he’s just not training very well,’ ‘He doesn’t look good, sorry.’

“I remember when he won — I was a little younger than I am now — getting in their face, telling them ‘I told you so, I told you so!'” Law recalled. “Maybe I was nixed after that for being so braggadocios about it.”

That was Law’s last really good Derby-winning pick. He picked Barbaro, but that’s not brilliant, choosing the favorite.

“Some other horses I’ve picked have been totally dreadful; some I don’t even remember who I picked, they were so bad,” he said. “I cover racing year-round as a writer and you try to do things objectively, but the two weeks leading up to the Derby, people start asking you who you like. I almost have to train myself how I’m going to answer, but I kind of just root for the best story now.”

Trainer John Ward sent out Monarchos to win the 2001 Kentucky Derby, while Carl Nafzger won with Unbridled in 1990 and Street Sense in 2007.

“Looking at this year’s race, if I’ve seen a horse that looked like a Monarchos scenario, that’s probably Alpha,” Ward said. “Lightly raced, it’s taken him a little while to get into form, but he’s got lots of talent. He got knocked around in the first turn of the Wood Memorial, got back up, and almost won. Monarchos was second in the Wood, and the reason I took him there was because Aqueduct racetrack teaches a horse how to finish. It’s a very demanding race course and it finishes a little bit uphill. When a horse comes off of that, they are fit.”

“Everyone’s always asking me who I think will win,” said Nafzger. “I’ll tell them who I like. I like Union Rags this year. I love him, actually. He had a rough trip in the Breeders’ Cup. I just think he’s the horse.”

That selection comes with a word of caution:

“Charlie Wittingham had the greatest horse quote in the world,” Nafzger said. “He worked some runner one day and he worked great in the mud and the reporters said, ‘Well, at least you know he’ll run in the mud now,’ and he said, ‘We know he’ll work in the mud.’

“The greatest thing I like about the Derby is there are no guarantees. The one horse I was really impressed with leading up to a Derby one year was Point Given. I said Point Given would win the Triple Crown; they couldn’t beat him. I’d never seen a horse travel as strong and nice as he did. He had a miserable Derby, as you know, but he went on to win the Preakness and the Belmont.”

Two outta three ain’t bad.


Sometimes, picking the winner is all about serendipity.

“My job at Churchill Downs was driving the track president around,” recalled longtime Louisville resident and horseplayer Rusty King, who has attended the Derby for 41 years. “In 2009 they kind of put me in with Chip Wooley because they were helping him out since he was on crutches. They said, ‘Make sure he gets to the paddock,’ all that stuff.

“I came over here to the backside, picked him up, and brought him over. He wasn’t going to saddle his horse in the paddock because of the crutches, but at the last minute he changed his mind, so I brought him to Gate 15, the fire gate by the paddock. He goes out there, saddles his horse, and wins the Derby.

“I bet him after I met him. He’s one of those guys who said, ‘It might be worth $10, you never know.'”

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Author PhotoA Chicago native, Claire Novak is the winner of the 2011 Media Eclipse Award for Feature/Commentary and has written on racing for some of the nation’s best-known outlets, including ESPN The Magazine and, the Associated Press, and NBC Sports. She is a former staff writer and current correspondent for The Blood-Horse Magazine, and is also a guest correspondent for Lady Luck on TVG. Visit her website or follow Novak on Twitter. More by  ›