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Billy Reed: Now, to be sure the horses stay fit and healthy for the big race — luck really does matter

LOUISVILLE — The elegant Aristides Room was the scene of yesterday’s made-for-TV production of the taking of entries and draw for post position for Saturday’s 147th Kentucky Derby.

It turned out just like management likes – efficient, no drama, antiseptic. Nobody around like Johnny Campo, the rotund trainer of 1981 Triple Crown winner Pleasant Colony, who liked to bellow “Nobody’s gonna mess with ‘The Fat Man.’ We’re gonna win this thing and it’s not going to be close.”

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award three times. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades and is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby. His book “Last of a BReed” is available on Amazon. This week Billy is covering his 53rd Kentucky Derby week, counting down to Saturday’s Run for the Roses.

For some reason, the show included three nerdy “analysts,” who did a great job of stating the obvious. Lord, where are Tom Hammond and Mike Battaglia and Tom Durkin when we really need them?

The only thing that even came close to being controversial involved Known Agenda, winner of the Florida Derby. He drew the No. 1 post in the track’s new 20-stall starting gate, and his trainer, the taciturn Todd Pletcher, wasn’t happy.

Not that he fell to the floor, screaming and kicking his feet in the air. Nothing like that. He just said he would have preferred a post in the middle of the pack.

Drawing the rail will put extra pressure on jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. In a split second after the starting gate. Springs open, he must decide whether to gun Known Agenda for the lead or take him back.

Otherwise, the trainers all said they were happy with with their post positions. They stopped short of linking arms and singing, “Kumbyyah.”

And, of course, depending on how their horse breaks, whether he gets bumped or cut off coming out of the gate, some may be singing an entirely different tune Saturday night.

Battaglia, the longtime track announcer at Churchill, still makes the early betting line for the Derby. Here’s what was announced after yesterday’s draw:

Hidden Quality, 2-1.
Rock Your World, 5-1.
Known Agenda, 6-1.
Hot Rod Charlie, 8-1.
Highly Motivated, 10-1.
Mandaloun and Medina Spirit, 15-1.
O Besos , Dynamic One, King Fury, and Midnight Bourbon, 20-1.
Super Stock, Soup And Sandwich and Bourbonic, 30-1.
Like the King, Keepmeinmind, Helium, Hidden Stash, Sainthood, and Brooklyn Strong, 50-1.

So Battaglia will be surprised if anybody but his top five wins. But even if one of them does, a longshot or two could hit the board, ruining a lot of exactas, trifectas, and other exotic bets.

As you might expect, I felt nostalgic for the days when the entries were taken and post positions drawn in a small cabin under the Churchill grandstand. This was the domain of Racing Secretary Alan “Doc” Lavin, and it was so tiny that anybody wanting to see it all in person had better get there early.

In short order, it always was elbow-to-elbow and it wasn’t long before everyone was drenched in sweat. The smarter of our breed watching it all on TV up in the nation’s best pressbox (I still mourn its passing.)

It was part of the Derby’s charm, but charm seems to be in shorter supply with each passing year. It’s all about getting it done without any distractions whatsoever.

Over the years, a lot of Derbies have been lost or won at the starting gate. Horses with early speed don’t like to break from the outside, and one-run, come-from-behind horses don’t like to draw near the rail.

In 1987, for example, Alysheba stumbled to his knees coming out of the gate, but jockey Chris McCarron did a wondrous job of staying on his back and getting him up and running.

That Alysheba won the race is a tribute to the horse’s athleticism and McCarron’s talent. Nobody would have blamed McCarron if he had bailed out, but he knew how good his horse was and stuck with him.

It will be interesting to see if the new 20-stall gate makes a difference. Until now, the track used the traditional 14-stall gate with a second one hitched to it.

Now all that’s left is to make sure their horses stay happy and fit. All of them are fidgety and nervous, but try not to show it. Nobody wants to be the next Jeff Mullins, the trainer who had 2009 Derby favorite I Want Revenge, but was forced to scratch him the morning of the race when he discovered a “hot spot” on one of his ankles.

But that’s the Derby for you. More can go wrong than right. That’s why the race sometimes isn’t won by the best horse, but the luckiest.

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