The weatherman is calling for partly cloudy skies with temperatures in the upper 70s for May 7 in Louisville, Ky. After last year's drenching rainstorm on Kentucky Derby (gr. I) day, even a sliver of blue in the sky will be a welcome sight for the 150,000-plus expected to attend the 131st running of the Run for the Roses.
The "new" Churchill Downs will provide a spectacular setting, and the Thoroughbred foal crop of 2002 has brought forth an intriguing group of candidates, eight of which are stabled with two sure-fire future Hall of Famers, Nick Zito and Todd Pletcher.
Zito, with an arsenal of five Derby candidates, has the probable favorite, George Steinbrenner's Bellamy Road. The Florida-bred son of Concerto's morning gallops are just the right mixture of brute strength and poetry in motion. Zito has tasted Derby success twice: with Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go for Gin in 1994.
Steinbrenner has had five previous Derby starters, none of them hitting the board. His best result came in his first try, when Steve's Friend finished fifth to Seattle Slew in 1977.
A stalwart of the Florida breeding industry, Steinbrenner is best known in the sporting world as "The Boss," a nickname given him by tabloid newspapers during his 32 years as owner of the New York Yankees. Steinbrenner's Yankees have won six World Series titles, the last in 2000.
A Kentucky Derby victory would be a crowning achievement for the 74-year-old Steinbrenner and put him in very good company. The late John Galbreath, one of the racing industry's most respected figures, was owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1947-84. The Pirates captured the World Series in 1960 (with Bill Mazeroski's game-winning home run against the Yankees), 1971, and 1979.
Galbreath's Darby Dan Farm won the 1963 Kentucky Derby with its first starter, Chateaugay, a homebred son of 1955 Kentucky Derby winner Swaps. Four years later, the Hail to Reason colt Proud Clarion, another Darby Dan homebred, gave Galbreath his second Derby winner in as many tries.
But Galbreath, like Steinbrenner a native of Ohio, didn't stop there. He won the 1972 Epsom Derby (Eng-I) with Roberto, who went on to be a major influence at stud. In 1985, Galbreath won the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) with Darby Dan homebred Proud Truth. No American sportsman has ever had a more prestigious trophy collection.
Steinbrenner's Yankees are off to a rough start in the 2005 baseball season. It could be a long year for the man who once said "winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing." But The Boss has the goods to score his first Kentucky Derby victory. Off his good looks while training at Churchill Downs and his overpowering, 17 1/2-length Wood Memorial (gr. I) triumph, Bellamy Road is my pick to win.
Todd Pletcher will win the Kentucky Derby someday--if not this year. A graduate of D. Wayne Lukas U., the 37-year-old Pletcher attracts the same kind of goal-oriented owners who have accompanied Lukas into the Derby winner's circle on four occasions.
In fact, Michael Tabor, co-owner with Derrick Smith of the Pletcher-trained Bandini, previously won the Derby with Thunder Gulch, with whom Lukas launched a 24-1 upset in 1995. Tabor, part of the powerful team affiliated with Ireland's Coolmore operation, is just one of several major owners who have hitched their wagon to Pletcher.
Bandini, a son of 2000 Kentucky Derby victor Fusaichi Pegasus, is the likely second choice to Bellamy Road. He has just one stakes victory, that coming in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), but the turn of foot he showed while accomplishing the win, combined with the overall strength of the Blue Grass field, emphasize his quality.
If Bellamy Road falters, Bandini will be there to pick up the pieces.