A Much-Deserved Victory Puts Triple Crown in Play

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Anyone who has stood near the railroad tracks while a freight train roared by at full speed can attest that the sound is enveloping, engulfing, and that the vacuum of silence left in the train’s wake is a special kind of churned up absence, almost spectral, with dry leaves still twisting back to rest on the gravel.It takes a second for the world to re-align itself after the presence of such a force; you wait by the tracks for that first cautious chirp of birdsong. Sunday morning in early May feels the same. The Derby has gone by.

Months of anticipation and conjecture, analysis, and braggadocio culminated in the seismic roar of the secondlargest Kentucky Derby crowd ever gathered. A couple of ticks past two minutes later, fantasy gave way to reality and the race was in the books.

Edgar Prado, pumping his hands with joy, victorious for the first time after seven tries, said the horse was like a rocket. Indeed, Barbaro had shut them down.

At the 3/8ths pole, the top of the second turn, you could see that the speed was finished; Sinister Minister and Keyed Entry were done, but it was still anyone’s race, a mash of horses, a crush of muscle. Halfway through the turn, Barbaro made his move. By the quarter pole it was only a question of by how much he would win. Certainly no one expected the answer to be 6 1/2 lengths.

Any disappointment about being wrong fluttered away with the discarded tote ticket, money on the wrong nose replaced immediately by joy regarding Barbaro’s dominant, commanding victory.

I wrote last Thursday that this race is the end of local racing for the horses that come out of it well, that this is the watershed. – the beginning of national racing, the Show. The good ones compete in nationally televised, graded stakes races for the rest of year, probably the rest of their careers. These become the horses that define their generation, if not the period of racing itself. They are the names that leap off the page in handicap races. How many fans experienced this very flash of recognition when they saw Perfect Drift among the entries in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, the ninth race on the card? He finished third in the Derby in 2002.

But Barbaro didn’t just earn himself a place in the memory of race fans; all the top runners in the Derby did that. He earned a stunning victory. He’s set himself up to be the horse of the decade.Undefeated. With a margin of victory unseen since Assault took the race in 1946 en route to the Triple Crown. But the “Club footed comet,” as he was known due to a malformed hoof, was tired at the end of his 1946 Derby against an underwhelming field. “Drew out to win with little left,” reads the chart.

Barbaro was not tired. Barbaro had a lot left.

Excuses will be made for the horses that failed to fire: bad trips, dead rails, bumping.Trainer Bob Baffert said that “Bob and John had a really rough trip and didn’t get to do his thing.”

But overcoming that, instead of leaning on it as a crutch, is exactly what it means to be real. Barbaro stumbled coming out of the gate. He bumped with Bob and John. The official chart says that he was five or six wide around the first turn.

Alex Solis, who was up on fourthplace finisher and morning line favorite, Brother Derek, said after the race, “I never got a chance to drop in. Not the whole race. It was rough out there. He ran hard; he tried hard. But I never had a chance with him.”

Brother Derick’s trainer, Dan Hendricks, said, “We thought the 20-horse field would interfere with our strategic abilities and it did.”

It’s an off-the-cuff remark, and one shouldn’t make too much of it.But what exactly does “interfere with our strategic abilities” mean? What could be more interference than a stumble followed by a bump going into a turn on which the horse is hung six wide?

Brother Derek was steadied twice during the race.There’s no denying that his trip was rough, but that’s what it means to win the Derby. If the Kentucky Derby was a five-horse race with no pressure and no bumping, it wouldn’t be the Kentucky Derby. Strategic ability is the ability to overcome interference – to get where you need to be and go where you need to go despite the other horses. That’s why we run them all on the same track, instead of sprinting them down chutes individually and timing it.It’s not that your ability was interfered with, in other words, it’s that you don’t have enough of it.

The quietude of Derby Sunday is already being eclipsed by murmers of the Preakness. And, of course, Prado wasted no time: “Hopefully we can get the Triple Crown,” he said on television.

If there’s a chink in Barbaro’s armor, it’s the layoffs. He had eight weeks before the Florida Derby, five weeks before Kentucky. He’s just going to be settling into his stall when they march him out to run for the black eyed susans.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a problem, but we’ll have to wait and see,” trainer Michael Matz said. “If we made a mistake, we’ll know it in two weeks. But that was the plan all along.”

Mr. Watman is the author of “Race Day: A Spot On the Rail With Max Watman” (Ivan R. Dee). He can be reached at mwatman@nysun.com.

The New York Sun

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