There are 2,904 hours until the Kentucky Derby. By the time I finish writing this, there will be 2,903. I figure approximately 650 of those hours will be spent sleeping, leaving 2,253 hours to think about the Derby. I checked my special Derby fever thermometer the other day and it's already up to 99.3 degrees. At this rate, I'll have to settle down or risk frying my brain altogether.

I know I've been stricken early this year, because I'm already thinking of whether I'm going to have grits or oatmeal on my first morning at the Churchill Downs track kitchen. Now, to most people, I seem relatively normal. I have a wife who cooks me nice meals, and a daughter graduating from high school next year. I feed the birds in my backyard and I even wash the dishes. But, alas, they are all merely diversions on that seemingly never-ending road to the Shangri-la with the beckoning steeples.

So, why am I writing about Derby fever in early January? Why am I callously inflicting this annual malady onto others who wish to trudge through winter like normal people?

Call it a public service. I'm simply not willing to let people trudge through winter. After all, Derby fever works in many ways. For the people in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwest, it melts the snow drifts and warms the sub-freezing temperatures. Want to get a nice, cozy feeling in January and February? Grab yourself a Derby horse, hug him, and snuggle up in bed with him every night, dreaming of warm May mornings and Twin Spires piercing soft, fluffy white clouds.

For the people in the South and Southwest, Derby fever can be accompanied by brisk chills to cool those hot, steamy days and start one dreaming of crisp, gentle breezes caressing the blades of Kentucky bluegrass. Even a good number of blokes from England and Ireland will be using Derby fever this year to burn through the dreary gray haze of winter.

All over America, owners, trainers, and jockeys are embracing their Derby horses, hoping that cuddly creature will, in four months, bring them the ultimate in fame and glory, and in the end, immortality. So, why not get out there and join them? Although you won't share the same level of fame and glory, and your immortality will live only in your own mind and in the minds of those closest to you, there is still something incredibly special about latching on to a Derby winner early and riding along on the tail of a comet.

It still could, in many ways, lead you to the winner's circle on the first Saturday in May. It could bring you riches beyond your wildest imagination. It could give you bragging rights for at least an entire year. And, oh, the stories you can one day tell your children or grandchildren about the year you grasped that elusive moonbeam called a Kentucky Derby winner in January and held it firmly in your hands.

So, go ahead; start looking. They're all out there, just waiting for you -- Siphonic, Repent, Saarland, and all the others basking under the warm California and Florida sun; Johannesburg, cloistered away somewhere in the lush green hills of Ireland; and those enduring the cold winds whipping off New York's Jamaica Bay or listening to the far-off trumpet and saxophone strains blaring from Bourbon Street.

Sure, it's easy for me to say. I'm getting paid to have Derby fever a month before the Super Bowl. But even if I weren't, where else could I get this kind of therapy for free? I feel it is my duty as a man of compassion and love for his neighbor to share this elixir of life well before its peak of potency.

There is more to beauty than waiting for it to blossom before your eyes. Envisioning beauty while it is still being nurtured can be equally as rewarding. I leave you with the closing lines to a classic song, written by Amanda McBroom and made famous by Bette Midler: "Just remember, in the winter, far beneath the bitter snows, lies the seed that with the sun's love, in the spring becomes the rose."

STEVE HASKIN is The Blood-Horse senior correspondent. Take his Derby temperature regularly at http://tcm.bloodhorse.com.

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