Decadent and depraved, the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby is finally upon is. The hot-burning dreams of the 20 contenders who will line up Saturday are still flickering bright.
Two minutes after the gates open, 19 of those flames will be extinguished, their chance of gilt-gilded immortality gone forever.
Only one dream will remain alight.
And having proven himself the finest of his generation, the latest Derby hero will be garlanded with his own thorny crown.
So, let's cast an eye over my predictions for what might occur when the gates open at 6:24 p.m. ET Saturday, during the most thrilling two minutes in sports.
Some weather reports forecast an 80 percent chance of rain at Churchill, meaning that America's biggest race could turn into a muddy soup run. Most of the fancied horses haven't proven themselves in the slop, but a couple of the longer shots stand to make the most of the conditions.
Both Itsmyluckyday and Vyjack have Stakes-winning form on sloppy tracks. And Palace Malice ran a smasher in a red-hot allowance on the surface.
Don't underestimate proven form in the mud. And don't expect to be able to distinguish your horse by the mud-splattered silks of the jockey come the final few furlongs.
In 2009, Todd Pletcher had one of the fancied shots for the Derby in Dunkirk. Like Verrazano this year, Dunkirk was a lightly raced colt. He also hadn't had a race at two.
Stumbling out of the gates, Dunkirk never got a look in. He trailed in a disappointing 11th behind Mine That Bird. The going that day: sloppy.
Like Dunkirk that year, I don't envisage Verrazano winning. I think he'll put in a much more respectable effort than his aforementioned stable mate, but I think the unique demands of the Derby, the rough-housing, the jostling, the potential wet track this year and so forth, will prove his undoing.
I expect this race will turn into something of a schooling exercise for him. As a result, and fitness providing, Verrazano can decorate his mantelpiece later this year in big race gold.
Jockey Calvin Borel loves the Churchill rail more than Donald Trump loves the sound of his own voice. This year, Borel couldn't have found himself drawn in a better post position: the No. 3 spot on Revolutionary.
Then there's the matter of the weather, as the rain on Derby day seems to bring out the very best in Borel. His wins on Mine That Bird in 2009 and Super Saver in 2010 were both on wet tracks—both wins coming with a swoop down the inner.
With that in mind, all the portents are looking very encouraging for Revolutionary. What is more, he's got winning form on a "good" track—the next wettest to sloppy.
If it is a wet track, I think you'll see a horse with a little more toe than Revolutionary do the honors. So, despite an aorta splitting late lunge down the inner, I just can't quite see Borel adding to his medal haul this year.
Todd Pletcher couldn't have started his Derby weekend in any better form as he picked up a couple of wins, including the 38-1 shot Princess of Sylmar in the Kentucky Oaks.
While an Oaks win is nice and all, it's not a Kentucky Derby. Pletcher will have to wait another year, however, before he adds to his trophy haul.
We've already discussed why Verrazano and Revolutionary won't win. His other contenders—Overanalyze, Palace Malice and Charming Kitten—simply aren't good enough. If you're a Pletcher fan, don't worry. He'll be back next year—probably with a quarter of the runners again.
If Mylute does the business, you can just picture the headlines: "Rosie's Roses Have Never Smelled Sweeter." Her mud-splattered face will adorn every front page the country through.
There's just one glitch to that dream: Mylute won't win.
He'll run OK. He'll have every chance turning for home only to wilt close to the wire. His chances of gold will be gone. Napravnik's, however, should be very much alive for the years to come, all being well.
So, we've put paid to Napravnik's dream this year. But for those still looking for that gilt-edged headline this year, how about jockey Kevin Krigger, who is looking to become the first black rider to win the race since 1902?
Krigger rides Goldencents, and Goldencents has enjoyed sustained support this week, resulting in his odds tumbling.
But, sorry again, guys: Goldencents is going to be found wanting at the end. I can see him maybe grinding out a place, maybe, but I'm afraid Krigger is going to have to come again another day to set that record straight.
Oxbow has the assistance of two of the industry's most venerated veterans for the big day: Jockey Gary Stevens and trainer D. Wayne Lukas. He couldn't be in four better hands.
Thus far, one would have to possess an imagination like Washington Irving to make a valid case for an Oxbow victory. In the race itself, however, I expect Oxbow to show exactly why he was given a chance.
Behind early on, I expect to see this grizzled performer staying on late all the way to the wire past tired horses, snapping at the heels of the placed horses.
There is no more sporting outfit in global racing than Ballydoyle. This year, the most successful stable in Europe pins the hopes of Ireland on Lines of Battle.
While I hold Aiden O'Brien in the very, very highest esteem, I can't help but feel as though he targets the Kentucky Derby as something of an afterthought—a notion that will be borne out when Lines of Battle gets gunned down comprehensively.
For a horse to run in Dubai, travel to America and then try to win a championship race a little over a month later is an arduous ask for any horse. For an early three-year-old, it's nearly impossible.
If O'Brien is ever to ship the Roses back to Ireland, I believe he will have to take a more conventional route. But who am I to tell O'Brien what to do? The man's a genius. Simple.
So here is where I leave myself open for egg and ridicule: the predictions.
In my predictions yesterday, I wasn't aware of the possibility of rain. With the equation altered, here are my revised thoughts for the placed horses:
Fourth: Oxbow. Sentimental choice at a nice big price.
Third: Revolutionary. If you're putting money on this horse, keep your eyes glued on the rail.
Second: Itsmyluckyday. A new arrival onto the scene, entirely due to the weather.
I was so taken by his Florida Derby win that I just can't look beyond this horse.
Yes, it is a worry that Orb hasn't got form on an off-track. But I don't envisage this as being a problem for Shug McGaughey's classy colt. He's a nice mover who has simply done nothing wrong en route to Kentucky.
Expect to see him a little handier than midfield before he makes his decisive move at the top of the stretch.
Jockey Joel Rosario will enter the winner's enclosure wreathed in red roses.