Trainers preparing for the Kentucky Derby keep saying the same thing, over and over again. The race is wide open. There was Kiaran McLaughlin, a Kentucky native who saddled 2006 Belmont Stakes winner Jazil, standing in the morning cold and wind Wednesday on the Churchill Downs backstretch.
"It's about as open as you can get,'' McLaughlin said. "Ten horses. Maybe 12, can win it.''
He's talking and I'm looking down at my digital recorder. The counter on the face tells me that McLaughlin is my 29th recorded interview related to Saturday's 137th Derby. (I had to scrape a little frost off the recorder to see the number because it was chillier in Kentucky than it was in Canada for most of the alpine ski races at the 2010 Olympics. But no complaints; I'm talking to people about a horse race for a living and, besides, I like cold weather). Of those 29 interviews, pretty much every one -- trainers, jockeys, owners -- have offered some variation on the wide-open theme. (Here I'll interrupt my narrative thread to say that, yes, this column ends with my prediction of the first three finishers in the race; feel free to scroll).
On the surface, this seems like a good thing. Blanket finish! Betting possibilities! Huge payoffs! But of course it's really not. It's not a good thing in any sport. What's good is greatness. When there is greatness, that opens the door to both historic achievement and earth-shaking upsets. Wide open means mediocre and everybody here knows it, even if nobody contesting the race is saying it.
The mediocrity is doubly painful in this arena, because for decades the racing game has arrived at Churchill Downs in early May searching for a wonder horse. The history of the sport is disproportionately measured by its champions' beatdowns and not by the competitiveness of its races. What is the most famous horse race in history? Secretariat's surreal, 31-length romp to win the 1973 Belmont Stakes, secure the Triple Crown and validate Big Red's transcendent greatness. (Don't get me wrong, it still gives me chills. "Moving like a tremendous machine'' is right there with "Down Goes Frazier,'' but it is remembered as a coronation, not a competition). Affirmed is best remembered as the last Triple Crown winner, not for his heart-stopping win over rival Alydar in the Belmont.