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Billy Reed: King Fury heartbreak and excruciating wait; here are my picks for the Run for the Roses

LOUISVILLE – So here we are again, at the ancient horse track in Louisville’s South end, the white edifice with twin spires atop its grandstand, located at the intersection of Fate and Destiny.

Horse racing in general, and the Kentucky Derby in particular, often can be capricious, unsentimental, and cruel. Just ask trainer Kenny McPeak, who announced yesterday morning that he was reluctantly scratching King Fury from today’s 147th Run for the Roses.

As McPeak solemnly told it to the track publicity office, King Fury came off the track after a gallop, spiked a temperature of 104 degrees, and refused to eat his morning feed.

That was enough to tell McPeak to scratch the colt. He now will be treated by veterinarians and pointed for another race, probably the Preakness two weeks from today at Pimlico in Baltimore.

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.

I felt badly for Kenny, whom I’ve known and liked for many years. In fact, he’s on my short list of trainers who deserve to win a Derby. The others are Dale Romans, Dallas Stewart, Mark Casse, and Steve Asmussen.

By the way, I have been remiss in failing to note the death of racing official. Donnie Richardson earlier this week. He was a Churchill Downs fixture, working in a variety of jobs such as racing secretary, director of racing, and assistant racing secretary.

He spent a few years as a jockey agent, but didn’t really have the salesman’s mentality and personality required of that work.

I’m sure Donnie would laugh if I said I’m sorry I didn’t get his Derby picks before he passed. Everybody on the backstretch knew him. RIP, my friend.

All day today, the waiting will be excruciating for all the owners, trainers, and jockeys of the 19 Derby contenders All the horses inside King Fury’s No. 16 will move a stall closer to the rail, but keep the same numbers assigned them at the post-position draw.

For those of us who claim to be semi-experts on the Derby, the time has come to stop tap dancing and put down our selections for posterity – or maybe for postures, if you get my drift.

So here goes.

For fourth place, I’m picking Medina Spirit because I’ve learned over the past 25 years it’s often a mistake to overlook trainer Bob Baffert, who has won the Derby five times during that era.

The colt also will be ridden by veteran John Velasquez, a Hall-of-Famer who won the Derby with Animal Kingdom in 2011, Always Dreaming in ’17, and Authentic last year. If Medina Spirit is good enough, Velasquez will get him close.

For third place, the logical pick would be either Hot Rod Charlie or Rock Your World, winners of the Louisiana Derby and Santa Anita Derby.

However, I’m picking Midnight Bourbon, second in the Louisiana Derby, mainly because I love his team of trainer Steve Asmussen, and Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who won the Triple Crown aboard Justify in 2018.

Billy on the job at Churchill — his 53rd Kentucky Derby

He also won the 2005 Derby aboard 50-to-1 shot Giacomo.

My pick for second is Known Agenda, impressive winner of the Florida Derby, even though I don’t like his post on the rail. The race will be dictated by what youthful jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr., does with the colt in the split seconds after the starting gate springs open. Should he go straight for the lead or gather his horse and look for a good spot in the middle of the track?

Given a little racing luck, he’s good enough to win.

My pick to win the roses is Essential Quality, the 2-to-1 favorite in Mike Battaglia’s opening line. He also happens to be a writer’s best story.

He is unbeaten. He is gray. He is trained by Brad Cox, seeking to become the first Louisville-born trainer to win the Derby. He is ridden by the talented Luis Suez.

And mainly, he is very good with a license to get better. In his gritty Blue Grass win at Keeneland, he looked like a horse who might like the longer Derby distance of a mile and a quarter.

That’s the best your humble servant can do. Despite all the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, it could be a very good Derby, and that would give us all a little slice of happiness.

I hope I see you, and you see me, on the backstretch this afternoon. I wish each of you a happy and blessed Derby 147.

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