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Kentucky Derby's Sentimental Favorite

With the Kentucky Derby just four days away, America's annual one-day - or 120-second - love affair with thoroughbred racing is upon us.

It's hard to imagine that horse racing, along with track and boxing, were the big sports in the middle of the 20th century. One need only watch an episode of "I Love Lucy" to see how often references were made to "watching the fights."

So for a sport that doesn't generate sustained interest, it's imperative that distinct and compelling storylines are evident before the event. Thankfully, this year's Derby has several narratives developing.

There's the issue of Uncle Mo, the once heavily favored horse who many thought was a near-guaranteed threat for a Triple Crown run. But after his third-place finish against a supposedly inferior field at the Wood Memorial, Uncle Mo is the current second Derby pick at 6-1. The current favorite at 4-1 is Dialed In, trained by two-time Derby winner Nick Zito.

Todd Pletcher, who broke the longest drought in Derby history last year when he won with Super Saver on a muddy track after 24 previous attempts at Churchill Downs without a victory, will no doubt relish Mo's underdog status as he'll seek to lower expectations. If Pletcher were to win back-to-back Derbys, it would be quite a story and would raise the trainer's reputation further.

But without question, the sentimental favorite for most fans - except those who wager large sums on other horses - is Mucho Macho Man. Why?

For starters, the trainer is Kathy Ritvo. She would be the first woman trainer to win the Derby. It's quite surprising, actually, that no woman trainer has won the Derby, because even though horse racing has always been a man's world at the top, women are intimately involved and 15 female trainers have attempted to win the Derby.

Ritvo is joined by Kathleen O'Connell, trainer of Watch Me Go, currently an extreme long shot at 70-1. Ritvo and O'Connell would cringe at the suggestion that they're aiming to win one for their gender. Still, it would be a great story.

But of greater importance is that Ritvo has literally faced death. She had to undergo heart-transplant surgery in 2008 when shed was 38. Just competing is a blessing, as she well knows.

If Mucho Macho Man, currently at 13-1, were to shock the field on the forecasted fast track, it would elevate Ritvo - and not only because of her gender. If she stands in the winner's circle with her beloved colt, it would be instant exposure for organ-donation programs that gave her a second chance at life.

As Ritvo said recently: "I'm here because somebody unselfishly donated their loved one's organs. I mean, I'm healthy for the first time in a really, really long time. And it's just a very unselfish, amazing gift you can give."

With the annual talk of the downfall of horse racing as a spectator activity, having a storyline like Ritvo's has to help the profile of the sport. One always hears of extraordinary connections between humans and other animals, such as dogs, dolphins or horses. How special indeed it would be if Ritvo's new heart guides the winning ways of a macho man.

Bin Laden's Death and Sports: Even in the context of sports, a great deal has been written already since the big news broke late Sunday night that the world's most wanted man had finally been gunned down at a compound in Pakistan. And it's impossible not to feel a swelling of pride for our nation, with how our elite Navy SEALs unit carried out the extraordinary mission of taking down the notorious mass murderer.

Spontaneous applause broke out during the Mets-Phillies game that brought back a brief reminder of what it was like, especially here in New York, in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, when baseball fulfilled its moniker as our national pastime. Indeed, nearly all were Yankees fans during that incredible autumn 10 years ago. I've said before that, when I look back at those games, I still think the Yankees won that World Series over the Diamondbacks. Because, in the way that the playoffs united New York, they did.

But when hearing that applause Sunday night, I couldn't help but wonder why the reaction didn't feel quite right.

When I heard the news, my instinct wasn't to thrust a fist into the air or scream "USA, USA." Rather, I first contemplated how good it must feel for the families who lost their loved ones - yes, that overused word, "closure." Then I thought about how different I would have felt had this happened, say, eight or nine years ago, when the scabs were still open.

I hope that in the coming days, sports don't force the issue with special patriotic displays that will inevitably feel forced - much like the continued, nonsensical singing of "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch at Yankee Stadium.

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides regular commentary for RealClearSports on Sundays and Tuesdays. Email: joyce.timothy@gmail.com

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