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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Few scenes can equal a Derby week morning on Churchill Downs’ packed backstretch. On Wednesday, you could see NCAA basketball champion coaches Rick Pitino and Denny Crum, magnificent thoroughbreds and hundreds of visitors milling about, looking confused but content.
Pitino, who owns 5 percent of Santa Anita Derby winner Goldencents, sees racing as “an enjoyable business,” he said. “I call it a meaningful distraction for a tough game of life.”
It’s also a sport nobody can quite figure out, and no race is more inscrutable than the Kentucky Derby. Today they’ll run it for the 139th time. For two minutes, millions of people will pause, riveted on a 19-horse charge into chaos and history. Trainer Kelly Breen withdrew Black Onyx late Friday morning because of a chip in his horse’s left ankle, and because he announced the decision after the 9 a.m. scratch time, the also-eligible Fear the Kitten will not run.
Trainer Todd Pletcher entered a record-tying five horses — undefeated Verrazano, Revolutionary, Overanalyze, Palace Malice and Charming Kitten — and will saddle them all. Watching them run is another story.
“I’ll do the best I can,” Pletcher said. “The Derby is a very hard race to watch, so I won’t try to focus on all of them. You can try to watch one horse, and I hope we have one alone at the eighth pole.”
As always, there are endless storylines:
n Will the unbeaten Verrazano emerge as a superstar?
n Can Goldencents give Pitino’s golfing buddy Doug O’Neill a second consecutive Derby and make Kevin Krigger the first black rider to win the race since 1902?
n Can Gary Stevens, at 50, and D. Wayne Lukas, 77, get a third Derby victory together, 25 years after their first?
n Can Shug McGaughey, 62, finally get the roses with Orb?
n Can Rosie Napravnik be the first female jockey to win the race?
The weight of greatest expectations is on Pletcher, 45, who got off the Derby schneid three years ago with Super Saver.
“Running five (horses) doesn’t mean you’re going to succeed,” he said. “It just gives you more chances. All it guarantees is that we’ll have at least four losers.”
Pletcher said his 1-for-31 in the Derby record isn’t an albatross.
“Honestly, if you had told me when I started training in ‘96 that I would have won one Kentucky Derby by the time I was 42, I would have said, ‘Sign me up,’” Pletcher said. “I just hope it doesn’t end that way.”
It’s been a glorious spring for Pitino, who won a second NCAA title this spring, made the College Basketball Hall of Fame and saw his son Richard named Minnesota’s men’s basketball coach. He likes Goldencents’ chances but said he won’t be crushed if he doesn’t win.
“(Orb’s trainer) Shug McGaughey is a friend of mine,” Pitino said, “and I’d be very happy if he won. I’m hoping for Goldencents and Orb coming down the stretch together, and we’ll see what happens.”
For the latest Kentucky Derby odds, see the Scoreboard on Page C4.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Trainer Todd Pletcher almost didn’t enter Princess of Sylmar in the Kentucky Oaks. Now the philly has put him in position to complete a rare double.
Princess of Sylmar, a 38-1 long shot, rallied with a huge stretch run to win the $1 million Grade I Oaks on Friday at Churchill Downs.
One of four fillies trained by Pletcher, she upstaged stablemate and 3-2 favorite Dreaming of Julia, who finished fourth. Unlimited Budget, another Pletcher entry, ran third behind 2-year-old filly champion Beholder.
The win positioned Pletcher for a weekend sweep if he can claim the 139th Kentucky Derby, where he has a record-tying five entries today.
Pletcher aims to become the first trainer since Ben Jones in 1952 to pull off the Oaks/Derby double and the fourth overall.