Updated on 09/16/2011 7:17AM

It takes talent and luck. It takes Saarland


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - There is no race in the world today that can compare to the Kentucky Derby.

Its value derives from the incredible difficulty of winning it and from the effort and expense willingly incurred in order to mount a serious challenge by some of the world's best-known racing men. The requirement for a talented horse is obvious, but the element of luck in determining the outcome cannot be overemphasized.

If Native Dancer had slipped past Money Broker at the first turn in the 1953 Derby, would "the Grey Ghost," beaten a head by Dark Star, have completed his career undefeated? The chart of the race says the Dancer was "probably best." If the fast-closing hole in mid-stretch had shut a second earlier in 1986 - and sealed off Ferdinand's winning move under Bill Shoemaker - would England's Bold Arrangement have held on to win?

The fortunes and misfortunes on this ancient Downs are part and parcel of the Derby's rich history, which also includes remarkable feats. Chris McCarron's deft horsemanship aboard the stumbling Alysheba in 1987 prevented a catastrophe of epic proportions. For training skills, consider the work of James Rowe Sr., who saddled the great Hindoo to win the Derby of 1881 and also prepared the filly Regret to win the 1915 Derby in her first start as a 3-year-old.

How the 128th Kentucky Derby on Saturday will be remembered is a matter for time to decide, but we suspect it will get higher marks than generally conceded before the race. A number of starters could be any kind, including Saarland, our choice to win.

Saarland, with his strong pedigree and characteristics of stamina, looks to be in excellent position in a Derby full of speed. He displayed his credentials as a stayer last season by winning the Remsen at nine furlongs, and confirmed that form with his stretch run in the Gotham. His finish in the Wood Memorial was less definitive, the aftermath perhaps of a displaced soft palate, which would have prevented him from getting his air.

"He had a myectomy, a relatively simple procedure designed to fix the soft palate in place," McGaughey said. "It is the same procedure we used so effectively a few years ago with Coronado's Quest. Psychologically, horses seem to feel relieved after the surgery, and Saarland followed his with one of his sharpest works."

McGaughey, who got the outside post position he wanted for Saarland, thinks Came Home, Harlan's Holiday, and Medalgia d'Oro are the ones to beat.

"There should be a lot of pace," McGaughey said, "and that should work to our advantage. We have the right kind of horse for the race and the right kind of rider."

John Velazquez has had a good deal of experience and is riding with confidence. He also has an ace in the hole in his agent, Angel Cordero, Jr.

"If John has any questions about the Derby, I can't think of a better source than Angel," McGaughey said.

Saarland was bred and is owned by Cynthia Phipps, whose late father Ogden Phipps and brother Ogden Mills Phipps have been trying to win the Kentucky Derby for almost 40 years.

Will the 128th Derby be a case of ladies first?