Orb’s the one
The Bluegrass State doesn’t have much to cheer about, nary a pro sports franchise or NASCAR race, only a mere two minutes of fame each year on the first Saturday in May. The first Kentucky Derby was run in 1875 when a chestnut colt named Aristides beat 14 others to win $2,850 in purse money in front of 10,000 racegoers.
Today’s Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville will draw over 160,000 fans and wagering will exceed $130 million. The winning horse will be draped with a blanket of roses and its owner will be cashing a check worth $1.24 million.
What sets the Kentucky Derby apart is the intrigue that lies in the unknown. The field is composed of talented yet untested 3-year-olds, all with fewer than ten career starts and none having ever raced at a mile-and-a-quarter distance.
Add to that a crowded 20-horse field and cheering railbirds spooking the steeds, and picking the winner is an educated guess. For that our go-to guy is Greenfield’s John Dobrydnio, a longtime horse owner and handicapper who’s well aware that certain folks in the reading audience “are hoping I fall on my face.”
Last year Dobrydnio picked Dullahan to win the Derby and it finished fourth. Six months later he picked Fort Larned to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic and it went gate-to-wire. Win some, lose a lot more, but that’s horse racing.
Dobrydnio works hard at handicapping. He’s watched the horses’ workouts and factored in their speed and pace patterns. When the field comes onto the track to the strains of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” and the railbirds are pumping down their last mint juleps before the starting gate opens, he’ll be both fearful and praying for racing luck: “One bump and we’re out.”
And conversely, one bump and the other guy’s out.
Who does Dobrydnio like in today’s Derby? It all begins and ends with Orb, the 7-to-2 morning line favorite. Dobrydnio usually shies away from picking favorites, but he has a history with this horse. In February, he picked Orb to win the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park and it won, and in March, he bet him to win the Florida Derby and he won again, even more impressively.
“I had him before anybody knew about him,” said Dobrydnio. “The horse was an unknown.”
If Orb does win today’s 139th Kentucky Derby it would be trainer Shug McGaughey’s first Derby champion in 37 years. The chestnut colt is co-owned by blueblood cousins Ogden Phipps and Stuart Janney III, neither of who have ever gone to Churchill Downs simply for the sake of putting a horse in the Derby starter’s gate. “A lot of guys, it’s their goal to get to the Derby, and we really don’t do it that way,” said McGaughey. “I want the horse to take me, it’s not something where we’ve got to get to the Derby. The Phippses aren’t built that way, and neither is Stuart Janney.”
Renowned trainer Todd Pletcher has stacked the deck with five horses, including the 4-to-1 second choice Verrazano, a New York-based colt that’s won all four of its career starts. Jockey John Velazquez got off Orb to ride Verrazano, and though the Pletcher-Velazquez trainer-jockey tandem is usually lethal, Pletcher is just 1-for-31 at the Derby and Velezaquez is only 1-for-13 on his Derby mounts. (He also suffered a cracked rib in a spill three weeks ago.) Another fact to consider is that Verrazano was unraced as a 2-year-old, and no horse since 1882 has won the Derby without getting at least one start at age 2.
Another Pletcher horse, Revolutionary, will have three-time Derby winner Calvin Borel aboard. “I’ve watched all the workouts and of all the horses he’s been the most impressive,” said Dobrydnio.
At Oaklawn Park three weeks ago, Pletcher saddled Overanalyze, the runaway winner of the Arkansas Derby. The colt’s owner, Brooklyn-born Mike Reopole, is a take-no-prisoners businessman who co-founded Glaceau waters brand, including Vitaminwater, which he subsequently sold to Coca-Cola for $4.1 billion.
Another Pletcher trainee, Palace Malice, is expected to come from off the pace and make a stretch drive for Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith.
“He may not win the Derby but he’s damn sure ready to run,” said stable president Cot Campbell. “When he makes his move he wants to keep going.”
The sentimental choice in today’s Run for the Roses will be a 25-to-1 long shot named Mylute, ridden by fan favorite Rosie Napravnik. The 5-foot-2, 113-pound Jersey girl has won 1,500 races and has an in-the-money mark of 60 percent. She won last year’s Kentucky Oaks at 13-1 and now aims to be the first woman to win the Kentucky Derby.
Similarly, Kevin Krigger of St. Croix, Virgin Islands, seeks to become the first black jockey to win since 1902. Fifteen of the first 28 Kentucky Derby’s were won by blacks, including Oliver Lewis in the Derby premiere. Krigger will be aboard Goldencents, most recently the 6-to-1 winner of the Santa Anita Derby. Louisville men’s basketball coach Rick Pitinio has a 5 percent stake in the horse, a bargain considering he was purchased for $62,000 (thus costing Pitino a paltry $3,100).
So how does Dobrydnio plan to lay the lumber?
“I try to reach for value but Orb has been so good to me, even if I blow a few hundred I’m still ahead. I’m going to use him in an exacta with a horse you really have to reach for, Java’s War, from the 19 post. He closes very well, but he’s horrifying breaking out of the gate.”
As for Verrazano: “I don’t know. I didn’t like his last race. My wife Paula likes Normandy Invasion, she thinks the horse has a strong middle move and end move.”
“I’m hoping that Goldencents (the 5-to-1 third choice) gets some pressure on the lead and doesn’t steal it on the front end,” added Dobrydnio. “The only thing that scares me is that the local undertaker likes the same horse I do,” laughed Dobrydnio, referring to his cousin Bill Kostanski. “Him and I on the same page, that’s never a good sign.”
Hot walks: Environmentalists won’t be rooting for Frac Daddy, owned by a pair of Montana oilmen that named their horse after hydraulic fracturing, the controversial method of releasing petroleum from the ground. Co-owner Carl Stewart told the Billings (Montana) Gazette they consider the name a “tribute to the oil field workers of America.” ... The owner of Java’s War, Charles Pifke, made his fortune two decades ago by discovering one of Canada’s largest diamond mines. Java’s War won the Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland but finished sixth in his only start at Churchill Downs. ... Itsmyluckyday was the beaten favorite in the Florida Derby. Trainer/owner Eddie Plesa Jr. paid $110,000 for the horse at an auction in Ocala and the colt has already given him a $536,000 return on investment. “This could be my sixth-round draft choice,” said Plesa. “This could be my Tom Brady.”
Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.