A friend from California said one of the reasons he likes visiting Keeneland each spring is the appreciation the track's patrons have for the horse. Sure, there is gambling going on at the Lexington track, but it plays second fiddle to the love affair between human and animal. "There aren't many places where people appreciate the horse anymore," my friend said. True. Fans at many tracks seldom see a live horse. They are so busy scribbling their "will pays" and following the races being simulcast from other tracks that they don't have time to visit the paddock or walking ring. At Keeneland, the saddling area is the center of attention. Rather than focusing on betting grids on the closed-circuit monitors, many Keeneland attendees ring the paddock, examining each runner or simply staring in awe at the beauty and majesty of the Thoroughbred. It's so easy to take Keeneland and its horse-loving atmosphere for granted. It's also easy to forget that horses blossom in the springtime, just as the dogwoods and azaleas do. Especially 3-year-olds. Keeping close watch on Kentucky Derby (gr. I) contenders through the winter and spring can be a financially rewarding experience. Some horses peak early and have a coat that is duller on the first Saturday in May than it was on the second Saturday in April. But others take on a healthier glow as Derby day approaches, going through their morning exercises with gusto, and maturing and growing stronger along the way. Few Derby winners failed to look the part. The new wave of horseplayers--those who have developed or use speed figures to guide them with their bets--tend to overlook the competitors they are betting on. That's a mistake, especially at Derby time, when horses need to be at peak physical condition. The mile-and-a-quarter classic is no walk in the park. The distance, large field size, and crowd noise present tremendous challenges to a 3-year-old Thoroughbred. It's no coincidence that horses with no 2-year-old racing have fared poorly in the Derby. Racing experience is a key element to success. This year's Derby promises to be especially interesting because with all but a couple of the major preps in the books, there is no clear-cut favorite. Future Hall of Famers Nick Zito and Bob Baffert, two trainers who eat, breathe, and sleep for the Derby, each have a chance to add to classic successes. But there will be some new shooters this year, including the unconventional Michael Dickinson, trainer of Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I) winner Tapit. Another first-time Derby trainer will be John Servis, the Philadelphia Park horseman who has put unbeaten Smarty Jones in position to win a $5-million bonus if he wins Churchill Downs' signature race. On the occasion of Oaklawn Park's 100th anniversary, owner Charles Cella installed the bonus for any horse winning the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby (gr. II) and then going on to win the Run for the Roses. Cella also boosted the purse of this year's Arkansas Derby to $1 million. Smarty Jones will become the richest horse in American racing history if he sweeps the Visa Triple Crown Challenge, adding another $5-million bonus from the credit card company. Cigar, at $9,999,815, is the current record-holder. Racing has had many close calls since the sport's last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, in 1978. Affirmed was the third Triple Crown winner of that decade, making some people wonder if winning the series had gotten too easy. But as one horse after another has won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes (gr. I) and then failed in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), fans have learned that it takes a very special horse. There are only 11 Triple Crown winners dating back to Sir Barton in 1919. Is a 12th winner out there now, maturing and blooming as Derby day approaches?
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