By JIM WELLS
Here and there a horse at the end of a shank nibbled on the short grass outside a barn late Saturday afternoon, taking in the warmth of a spring long overdue. A small number of equine trailers stood empty, most of them basically idle now until Labor Day.
The countryside surrounding Canterbury Park has turned a lush green _ the track’s infield itself looks almost ready to take its annual beating from the pounding hooves of thoroughbreds, many of them already on the grounds in anticipation of live racing on May 20. The parking lot held a substantial number of vehicles, including a lineup of Harleys outside the main gate.
Everywhere a person cared to look there were signs of spring, but no stronger precursor of that overdue event than the race that took place at 5:30 p.m. in Louisville, Ky.
Nothing quite announces the arrival of spring like the Kentucky Derby, in this case the 137th running of that signature event for three-year-olds.
The field of 19 horses that lined up on Saturday included two with slight Minnesota connections. There was Mucho Macho Man, sponsored by Minnesota’s 3M, in the no. 13 hole. And there was Archarcharch, trained by Jenks Fires, Canterbury’s champion trainer in 1986 who has been in the game for 50 years but made his first Derby appearance Saturday.
The Derby always delivers a wealth of stories, many of them heart-rending rags-to-riches accounts of dreams come true, and Saturday’s running was no exception.
The lead story of the 2011 Derby involved Mucho Macho Man’s trainer, Kathy Ritvo, a heart-transplant recipient in 2008. Mucho Macho, a son of Macho Uno, demonstrated his own kind of heart by taking third, behind Saturday’s winner, 21-1 outsider Animal Kingdom, and runnerup Nehro.
The favorite was Dialed In but the son of Mineshaft failed to dig in and finished well back, in eighth place.
The field for the 137th running appeared a modest bunch, although as horses have entered this event with increasingly less seasoning in recent years, it has become equally more and more difficult to judge their talent. Horses have averaged a mere seven starts prior to running in the Derby in the last decade, half the average number of the 1970s, which produced three Triple Crown winners. Fewer starts means less foundation for a race as grueling as the Derby and less information for the betting public.
The picture of this year’s race was muddied additionally by the departure of two-year-old champion Uncle Mo, who was scratched earlier in the week, turning Saturday’s race into a truly wide open affair. Uncle Mo, it turned out, didn’t have the stomach for this pressure cooker of a race. He may wind up with little stomach at all if his intestinal ailments can’t be diagnosed and treated. He was unbeaten until finishing third in the Wood Memorial, and arrived at Churchill Downs with no certainty of racing. He was the most talented horse in the Derby field, but has too many unanswered questions surrounding him and his undiagnosed maladies.
As always, questions surround Minnesota racing, too, approaching the opening of a 62-day live meet on May 20, the night before the Preakness Stakes. Track president Randy Sampson was a Saturday morning radio guest on KSTP and told Patrick Reusse that the chances of a racino bill making it through the legislature this session aren’t dead but appear as difficult as ever.
Thus, betting on the future of racing and the horse industry in Minnesota look comparable to a bet on Saturday’s Derby. No certainties. Nothing’s ever certain in racing, aside from the arrival of spring and its renewal of hope.