Horse racing is a highly competitive, some would say "beastly and cutthroat," sport.
Oh, you thought I meant the well over 1,000 pound horses, 20 of which will line up (minus scratches) at the starting gate around 6:24 p.m. on Saturday.
No, I was actually referring to the horses' trainers.
See, there is absolutely no doubt that Hall-of-Famers Bob Baffert and Nick Zito have earned their own special place in racing lore along, with "new hot kid on the block" Todd Pletcher. But that doesn't stop them from what seems to be a never-ending competition with each other.
Baffert has three Kentucky Derby victories and Zito has two, which means that it really had to irk Zito last year when his horse, Ice Box, had far from a perfect trip, yet finished just two-and-half lengths behind Super Saver—the winner of America's greatest horse race.
Super Saver was trained by Pletcher, giving the 43-year-old his first Derby winner in 24 tries. Of course, Baffert had even more frustration to deal with as his horse, Looking at Lucky—the clear favorite in the race—drew the No. 1 post and was pinned to the rail and finished sixth.
Two weeks later, Looking at Lucky romped to victory in the Preakness, and Baffert probably wonders what might have been in terms of a true Triple Crown threat.
After all, saddling a Triple Crown winner would give the 58-year-old racing legend a likely permanent step up on the other two.
All three of these trainers are back, and each has a serious contender or contenders to win the 2011 Kentucky Derby.
Zito has the early favorite in this year's Derby with Dialed In (currently 4-1), who the 63-year-old trainer bought on behalf of owner Robert LaPenta.
Dialed in has won three of four races, including the Florida Derby last month. He appears to be a very good horse, if not a great one, at this point. He also has the favorable No. 8 post position. Zito has been confident in and/or defensive of Dialed In depending on who you believe.
"It's big and he deserves it," Zito said about Dialed In being installed as the early favorite.
Zito's odds of matching Baffert's Derby win total are largely offset by the two horses that could lead Pletcher to match Zito.
Uncle Mo (9-2) was the horse that was supposed to be the odds-on favorite to win this "run for the roses." Then, as 1-9 favorite in the Wood Memorial, he finished third and was diagnosed with a gastrointestinal infection. He still isn't reportedly 100 percent, and could be pulled from the Derby lineup. Yet, Pletcher and wild-card owner Mike Repole aren't bashful about their claims of Mo's brilliance.
Just after the draw yesterday, Pletcher remarked, "I have always said that he is the best horse of his generation."
If Mo won't go, there is always the matter of Pletcher's other horse, Stay Thirsty (20-1). See, Stay Thirsty just happened to be bought as a yearling by the LaPenta/Zito team. Then the horse was turned around and sold for a $340,00 profit to, you guessed it, Repole. The process of buying a horse with the specific intention of re-selling it for a profit is called pinhooking.
"I didn't want to lose that horse. Sometimes you can get burned," Zito said. "That's what Bob told me: 'That's the dumbest thing I ever did in horse racing.'"
Did we forget about Baffert? Oh yeah, he happens to have Midnight Interlude (10-1)—the co-fourth choice at the moment. Not a whole lot is know about Midnight Interlude, other than he won the Santa Anita Derby.
The criticism is that the horse hasn't raced the toughest competition. That hasn't stopped his sometimes very vocal trainer from talking up the competition but talking down his connections.
"Uncle Mo looks fantastic out there to me," Baffert said. "He's the best horse in the race. I don't care what rumors you hear. You can't throw him out. He's looked great to me.
"Everyone is talking about him being 50/50. I think [owner Mike Repole] is just trying to build a price for himself because it sounds like he likes to gamble. He's going to be dangerous.
"I don't think it's some [gastrointestinal issue]. I think he just got tired at the Wood [Memorial]. From what I've seen visually, there is nothing there that tells me the horse isn't ready to run. I'm not buying that crap. He's just trying to steal this race."
Sounds like gamesmanship at best, and beastly and cutthroat at worst.
Now, gentlemen, let the horses settle this on the dirt.
After all, it will probably take only as long as it did to read this article—just a tad over two minutes.
Update: Uncle Mo was officially scratched on Friday morning.
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