Kentucky Derby braces for rain

Friday at Churchill Downs was like every day at Wimbledon. The big deal was the weather report.

Boiled down to the basics, forecasters said that Saturday’s 136th Kentucky Derby might be run in a swamp. The undercard may now include the Slops Stakes, the Rain Romp and the Muckrackers’ Mile. They will sing the national anthem and then bring on Paul Simon for “Slip Slidin’ Away.”

They held a news conference at which they predicted thundershowers and 1½ inches of rain overnight and then some scattered showers “between 10 a.m. and the Derby race time of 6:28 p.m. [EDT].” Nobody used the word “monsoon,” but they talked a lot about tunnels leading to the infield and flooding.

The weather development simply added to a Derby weekend full of trials and tribulations.

It started with a stunning announcement Monday that the favorite, Todd Pletcher’s Eskendereya, had developed a bad leg and would be scratched.

Wednesday, they held the post position draw and the new favorite, Bob Baffert’s Lookin At Lucky, drew the inside post. There are 19 horses to his right, all trying to save as much ground as possible and get near the rail immediately. Baffert felt ill.

Sidney’s Candy, the second favorite and also a horse bred in Kentucky and raced mostly in California, then drew post No. 20. Long way to the rail from there. Trainer John Sadler’s stomach was like Baffert’s.

Now, with the rains coming and the likelihood of an off track, post position may not matter as much as mud management. Trainers spent much of Friday fielding questions about the rain, and most answered with a shrug. Eoin Harty, trainer of 30-1 shot American Lion, was the most articulate.

“We’re here, we’re going to run and we’ll find out,” Harty said.

This one might drive handicappers to drink. OK, to drink more. On the heels of last year’s forehead-thumping win by Mine That Bird, whose form appeared to be as similar to a Kentucky Derby winner as Mr. Ed, people seriously trying to pick this race must be in a pool of sweat.

There are clues, none of them definitive. Four trainers have won before, including D. Wayne Lukas with four, Baffert with three, Nick Zito with two and Rick Dutrow with one. Pletcher has four horses after the departure of Eskendereya, but he has never won a Derby in 24 tries and has been in the money only once.

Jockeys can be a clue.

Garrett Gomez is on Lookin At Lucky and has been among the leading riders in the country for the last three years. Joe Talamo is on Sidney’s Candy and this will be his first Derby ride, even though, at age 19, he was on last year’s favorite, I Want Revenge, which was scratched the morning of the race.

Talamo won the Santa Anita Derby on Sidney’s Candy, while behind him near the rail, Gomez engaged in some … well, jockeying, with Victor Espinoza. After the race, Gomez and Espinoza exchanged words and punches. The good news for Lookin At Lucky fans is that Espinoza isn’t riding in this Derby.

Mike Smith is aboard Jackson Bend, Julien Leparoux on Awesome Act, Kent Desormeaux on Paddy O’Prado, Rafael Bejarano on Line of David, Joel Rosario on Make Music For Me, and the ever-present Calvin (Bo-Rail) Borel is on Super Saver. All are veterans of wearing six pair of goggles and tossing them back as they navigate in bad weather, so no real hints there.

Then there is the sentimental pick trick. Morning line 50-1 shot is Homeboykris, of whom Dodgers Manager Joe Torre has a 10% ownership stake.

The best solution for this one seems to be to get a dartboard with 20 numbers, put on a blindfold and go with what you hit.

Thankfully, the weather did not rain on Friday’s parade.

Before a crowd of 116,046, on a clear and windy day, 2009 horse-of-the-year Rachel Alexandra lost for the second time in two starts this year, when a game Unrivaled Belle battled her all the way down the home stretch and got her nose in front in the $418,800 La Troienne. And in the $500,000 Kentucky Oaks, the top 3-year-old race of the year for fillies, the favorite, Blind Luck, barely caught 10-1 shot Evening Jewel.

Evening Jewel’s trip was within a nose of completing a feel-good story for Tom and Marilyn Braly of Palm Desert, who own only a handful of horses and have been in racing for 30 years. Evening Jewel is headquartered at Santa Anita and was the only California-bred horse in the race.

For Tom Braly, a parade just prior to the Oaks couldn’t have been more fitting or meaningful. For the second straight year, the quarter-mile-long parade of people made its way down the main straightaway and into the infield. Most in the parade dressed in pink, or at least wore some pink. They were all cancer survivors, and pink was their color for the day.

Braly is fighting cancer right now. Ideally, next year, horse or no horse, he can walk along with them.