05/05/2016 12:50PM

Hovdey: Two minutes to answer a horseman's prayer


Once you have been to the Kentucky Derby – and this reporter has been to 21 of them, which is more than anyone deserves – trying to appreciate the race from afar is like watching “The Force Awakens” from the back row of the drive-in theater. You know there is something fascinating going on way off there on the horizon, but it’s hard to appreciate the details.

Still, the muscle memory of attending the Derby never fades, and Derby gatherings in the far corners of the nation can be comforting. I will be watching Saturday’s 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby with a friend who has been to more than 30 and with a jockey who has ridden in two. That’ll do.

The cultural fascination with the Kentucky Derby never fails to confuse. It’s as if for one communal moment the nation stops to contemplate the making of a chocolate souffle, something they would rarely eat and never order because the menu says you need to allow 45 minutes to prepare. I’ll have the red velvet.

Great sportswriters, otherwise occupied by Super Bowls and Olympic games, have been forever amused by America’s overnight conversion to Thoroughbreds.

“Then comes the week of the Kentucky Derby,” wrote Red Smith, “and sinless newspapers that wouldn’t mention a horse any other time unless he kicked the mayor to death are suddenly full of information about steeds that will run and the people they will run for at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.”

Or from Joe Palmer:

“Outside the racetrack there was a tense, expectant world, waiting crouched over its radios. Men paused over their lobster pots on off-shore Maine to adjust the portable. For that fleeting instant, no one cared what Rita or Princess Elizabeth was doing. It was, you understand, a very solemn moment.”

Or from John Steinbeck:

“This Kentucky Derby, whatever it is – a race, an emotion, a turbulence, an explosion – is one of the most beautiful and violent and satisfying things I have ever experienced.”

The best way to gauge the effect of the Kentucky Derby is to appreciate the people who have actually won the dang thing. Participation ribbons are nice, and the saddle towel might sell on eBay, but winning is the point of the exercise. Or at least it should be.

Since 2003, there have been 13 different trainers win the Kentucky Derby, 13 different racing families elevated, for a brief time, above all the rest. At the end of those two minutes, run at a pace that seems both an eternity and a heartbeat, all the thankless toil, the freezing water, the deep muck, the monotonous turning left at the shank disappear in a burst of unfettered joy. There, draped over the shed row rail as night falls on the Churchill Downs backstretch, is the proof that it was not a dream – the garland of roses, proudly displayed at the center of the racing universe.

A stretch of 13 runnings without repetition seems statistically unlikely, especially in an era of mega-barns when so many good horses are in the hands of so few. But trends tend to persist in spite of the facts on the ground. Of the 17 trainers with horses in the 142nd Kentucky Derby, 14 of them would be winning the race for the first time.

What it would mean to marquee trainers like Steve Asmussen, the freshly minted Hall of Famer, or perennial Kentucky powerhouse Mike Maker, or Chad Brown, only 37 years old, would differ from local Kentuckians like Dale Romans and Kiaran McLaughlin, or fellow Southerners Keith Desormeaux, Dallas Stewart, Tom Amoss, and Ron Moquett.

Donnie Von Hemel and Cliff Sise know what it’s like to train a top horse, but a Derby winner breathes different air. And what would they think back in Northern Ireland if Paddy Gallagher took down the Derby, or in Venezuela if Gustavo Delgado won it all, or in Japan if Mikio Matsunaga was the last trainer standing?

“My shot of ever doing anything like that was so miniscule when I was a kid growing up – it was just unheard of,” said Barclay Tagg. “At the riding stable, I’d read a glossy horse magazine like Turf & Field and look at the pictures of the Derby horses coming up each year. It was something I was crazy about, but it was about as far out of reach as the galaxies.”

Tagg began the run of the unique 13 in 2003 with Funny Cide, the first gelding to win the Derby since 1929.

“When he took the lead down there, I had … I was … it was just unbelievable,” Tagg said. “And I sure want to do it again because you don’t want everybody to think it was a fluke. You have to realize, though, there’s maybe 35,000 horses bred each year, and whether you’re male or female, you’ve got to be in the top 20 and still standing by the first Saturday in May of their 3-year-old year.”

Of the 13 most recent winning trainers, only Bob Baffert, Doug O’Neill, and Todd Pletcher are back on Saturday to try to win again. The other 10, including Tagg, will be spectators.

“I’ll be doing the same old thing that time of day,” Tagg said. “Grazing horses in the late afternoon and watching the race on the TV in the tack room.”

And this is what he will see, what we will see, and what William Faulkner witnessed in 1955 when Swaps and Nashua went forth in the Derby:

“The brazen chords swell and hover and fade above the packed infield and the stands as the 10 horses parade to post – the 10 animals which for the next two minutes will not just symbolize but bear the burden and be the justification, not just of their individual own three years of life, but of the generations of selection and breeding and training and care that brought them to this one triumphant two minutes where one will be supreme …”