The Kentucky Derby was once a horse race. Now, it has become a crapshoot.
Saturday told it all.
The two big preps for the May 7 classic, run under the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs, were the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in New York and the Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita. They were supposed to make order out of the inevitable chaos of a Triple Crown season.
Let's see. How did that turn out?
In the Wood, the current three-year-old rock star, Uncle Mo, looked more like a lounge singer. Since he ran away with the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last November, it appeared that Uncle Mo might show up and just have them hand him the trophy. Saturday, he got to the head of the stretch in the lead and then…well, cried uncle. He finished a beaten third, and chaos reigned again.
Then a semblance of order was restored a few hours later at Santa Anita, but that had to do with a trainer, not a horse. Bob Baffert's Midnight Interlude, a 13-1 roll of the dice, caught Peter Miller's Comma To The Top at the wire.
Baffert will now be the real rock star in Louisville. He is known, successful, quotable, a magnet for the note pads and cameras. He has won three Kentucky Derbies; five Preaknesses — including last year's with Lookin At Lucky — and one Belmont. Saturday's Santa Anita Derby victory was his sixth.
Baffert will not only saddle Midnight Interlude for the big race, but could also saddle two more — Jaycito and The Factor.
Jaycito was the favorite for the Santa Anita Derby, after previous favorite Premier Pegasus was scratched on Thursday with a hairline fracture in his left foreleg. The next day, Baffert scratched Jaycito because of an abscess on his foot, but will run him in Lexington, Ky., April 23 at the Coolmore Stakes, with the full expectation that he will do well enough to go on to the Kentucky Derby. Baffert also has The Factor, who is ranked third in the Daily Racing Form's Derby prospects and will go in his last prep race next Saturday at the Louisiana Derby at Oaklawn.
So the one Kentucky Derby certainty is that Baffert will be there. After that, get a dartboard and start throwing.
Baffert is not concerned about the possible complexities of starting three horses for three different owners, in the annual biggest fish bowl and pressure cooker in racing.
"I love it," he said. "I wish I had the whole field."
Lest it be misunderstood, this monstrous mess of mysterious horses is marvelous for the Derby. Great horses with great reputations and great short odds please the racing establishment. But a pick-'em field of 20 horses — that's the limit, and it is determined by money won in previous graded stakes races — thrills Joe Six Pack. Every horse has value. The angles and story lines and expert tips and knowing nods will generate great Derby buzz.
Remember March Madness? This is now May Madness. This bracket has 20 lines and one grand finale. They'll be crazy at Churchill Downs on race day. They'll be through the roof in Las Vegas. The guy setting the odds at Churchill might just pull names out of a hat and not tell anybody. Everybody can be a favorite. Everybody can go off at 50-1. Every office pool will be an equal opportunity provider.
Midnight Interlude stands as a symbol of this wide-open craziness.
He had three races going into Saturday, and hadn't broken his maiden (won) until March 11. He entered with $49,680 in winnings for owner Arnold Zetcher and finished with $649,680. That's more than enough to get him into the 20-horse Derby field.
Baffert said he was "semi-surprised" that Midnight Interlude won. But: "I had a feeling in the paddock because he looked so good."
Zetcher said he hadn't given the Kentucky Derby a thought until his horse crossed the finish line. "And then I had to ask Bob if we were going to the Derby."
Victor Espinoza rode the winner, and even that was an upset.
Last year at this race, Espinoza was not a favorite of the Baffert camp. His horse, Who's Up, and Baffert's Lookin At Lucky had done some bumping at the head of the home stretch. Espinoza and Lookin At Lucky's jockey, Garrett Gomez, threw punches at each other afterward, and Baffert and his wife, Jill — mostly Jill — had some angry words for Espinoza in the paddock.
Saturday, they were family again.
"I only look forward, not back," Espinoza said.
Baffert said, "I told Victor, 'A year ago, I was going to kill you. Today, you win the Santa Anita Derby for me.'"
A crowd of 31,523 was on hand, and Midnight Interlude paid $29.80, $12 and $6. A stunner.
Across the continent, Uncle Mo, the surest thing in a sporting event since John Wooden's teams in the NCAA, paid $2.10 to show. Also a stunner.
Track announcer Tom Durkin intoned: "This is the most shocking defeat in the Wood Memorial since Secretariat himself [lost the Wood]. The Kentucky Derby is now up for grabs."
Secretariat came back and won the 1973 Kentucky Derby. Uncle Mo might do the same thing.
But what was almost a given a day ago is now a new shuffle of the deck. Pick your card, have fun, and expect to see lots of the white-haired guy named Baffert.