How Not to Lose the Derby

By Lenny Shulman -- It's the most elusive of longshots: out of some 36,000 Thoroughbred foals born each year, just one gets to win the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). Apparently, these odds don't chase horse owners away. Like Lotto and pick six players, and people who go out in summer thunderstorms hoping to get struck by lightning, horse owners are willing to buck the odds, no matter how horrific, to play Captain Ahab chasing that big ol' whale.

We like nothing more than blind determination, so as a service to those Don Quixotes who will stop at nothing to see their pride and joy draped in roses, the least we can do is offer these tried and true formulas to stay firmly embedded on the Derby Trail.

* Do not create fan clubs, Web sites, bank accounts, or anything else in the name of your horse. Sure, when you have such a gifted animal the temptation is ripe to anthropomorphize--"he recognizes me," "he likes me," "he loves my pot roast," "he listens when I talk to him." Believe me, all he recognizes are the mints and carrots you ply him with. He's not coming over to hang out, drain a few beers, and watch the ballgame. So you want to create interest in the sport, get kids involved, ramp up some attention? Splendid goals. Leave him alone and let him win the Derby. You'll create plenty of attention and interest.

* Do not create merchandise with the horse's name on it. This includes hats, T-shirts, key chains, bobbleheads, snow globes, dolls, stopwatches, clothing lines, whips, chainsaws, and boutique bottles of bourbon with his likeness etched in the glass. If you do not believe me on this, you are welcome to visit my home and view one of the most extensive hat collections this side of Davy Crockett. But allow me to save you the time--you will not find a Derby winner's name imprinted on the crown of any of them. You gotta trust me on this.

* Do not, under any circumstances, win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I). Sure, everybody knows about this one, but every year, sure as shootin', someone goes ahead and does it. Big mistake.

* Do not proclaim how well your horse is doing in the week leading up to the Derby if he hasn't eaten in a week, is spiking a fever, has sore feet, or has a coat as dull as your typical pre-Derby party. Even though most sportswriters covering this beat know as much about horses as my Uncle Morty, who worked in a fish market 19 hours a day, they're a mean lot once they determine they've been lied to. They'll feast on your bones like piranha.

* If your horse goes five furlongs in 1:05 in his key work leading up to the race, don't go around calling it "a maintenance work" and proclaiming he got just what he needed from it. Your horse hates the track. Save everyone the agony of a bad performance and get out while you can. Sure, it may cost you some primo seats on the Big Day, but you'll have a fresh horse for the Preakness (gr. I), and those fake Black-Eyed Susans will still look pretty darn good draped over your boy's back.

* Bring as many of your friends to the race as possible, particularly those who know nothing about the sport. It is universally considered good luck to have people looking at the track through the wrong end of the binoculars, and commenting at how magnificent the horses and jockeys on the track appear when they're actually looking at the ponies and outriders. Bigger is always better where winner's circle scenes are concerned.

* Begin putting in mint juleps early on in the proceedings. This will help relax you during this stressful time, and your horse will pick up on that vibe in the paddock before the race. Even though alcohol is one of countless substances permitted in racehorses under Kentucky regulations, do not offer your runner a drink until after he wins.

* After you follow the above regulations, be prepared for the happiest moment of your life. But do not take offense when the governor mispronounces your name while handing you the Derby trophy. It is nothing personal, but merely just another charming tradition passed on through generations of local politicians.

LENNY SHULMAN is features editor for The Blood-Horse.