Updated on 02/14/2013 12:19PM

Jay Hovdey: Compiling Kentucky Derby lists a foolhardy exercise

Barbara D. Livingston
2010 Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Uncle Mo is a good recent example of a 3-year-old who was prominent on many early Kentucky Derby lists but failed to deliver.

Each year, when January slides into February and the snow begins to thaw (or not), anyone with a blog, a microphone, or an old-fashioned byline is required by cultural tradition to step forward with their list of Kentucky Derby prospects.

And so we have now proliferating, from many of our best horse racing analysts, their Derby Top 10 or Top 20, along with assorted Kentucky Derby Dozens. Updated week to week, accounting for the ebb and flow of harsh reality and wishful thinking, these lists serve to focus on the zero sum endeavor that takes place on the first Saturday each May in Louisville, before the largest American audience horse racing ever receives. I would call it the Hunger Games, but then the Derby’s Yum! Brands event sponsor probably already thought of that.

There are other ways in which I can embarrass myself in public. Golf, for instance. Or trying to outdress Todd Pletcher. This is why I leave it to those with more courage to bare their souls in public. Call it my Oyster Rule – no Kentucky Derby predictions in months containing the letter “R.” Here are my Top 10 reasons why:

Equipoise was the 6-1 winter book favorite to win the 1931 Kentucky Derby on the strength of an 8-for-17 campaign as a 2-year-old, and he did nothing to discourage those odds when he came out in April 1931 to win an allowance race at Havre de Grace.

But then things started going south. First there was his miserable flop in the Chesapeake Stakes, blamed on a form of uremic poisoning known as blackwater. Then two weeks later in the Preakness, which preceded the Derby that year, Equipoise finished an unthreatening fourth to Mate and Twenty Grand. On May 15, the day before the Derby, Equipoise was scratched from the field, officially because of a quarter crack.

Stagehand is best known for beating Seabiscuit a nose in the 1938 Santa Anita Handicap while carrying 100 pounds to The Biscuit’s 130. Never mind that Stagehand had won the Santa Anita Derby 11 days earlier, over a colt named Dauber, who later took the Preakness.

Soon, the Stagehand bandwagon was filled to capacity, in no small part because he was trained by a celebrity, the Triple Crown-winning jockey Earl Sande. But when Stagehand ran a dull third in the Derby Trial, Sande found his colt had come down with a fever and lung infection. Stagehand was held at 5-2 to win the Derby when he was scratched, two days before the race.

As April 1957 dawned, Gen. Duke was going to win the Kentucky Derby, and as far as most of the press and a large chunk of the betting public were concerned there was nothing Bold Ruler, Round Table, or Gallant Man could do about it. But then a bruised foot began to plague his form, which included a so-so second in the Derby Trial.

Trainer Jimmy Jones fussed with the foot for three days, entered the colt in the Derby, then scratched him the morning of the race. Jones still had the unsung Iron Liege in the Derby (referred to as “less than half of the entry” by sports writer Orlo Robertson) and won the roses anyway.

Sir Gaylord was favored to win the 1962 Kentucky Derby because he beat Ridan, Decidedly, and Crimson Satan silly in the Everglades Stakes at Hialeah, then came back after a break to take the Stepping Stone Purse at Churchill Downs.

Trainer Casey Hayes had every reason to believe that Sir Gaylord’s ankle trouble was behind him, which is why it was so heartbreaking when the colt came out of a routine exercise the day before the Derby with a fractured sesamoid. Later that same afternoon, Hayes and owner Chris Chenery won the Kentucky Oaks with Cicada, which was nice. But it wasn’t the Derby.

No foot, no horse was the theme of 1966 when both Buckpasser and Graustark, the two best 2-year-olds of 1965, had to miss the Kentucky Derby.

Buckpasser’s quarter crack got serious in the wake of his cliffhanger in the Flamingo Stakes the first week of March, so at least the rug was pulled early. Graustark, who seemed to be forever nursing one bruised foot or another, continued to defy the odds and win races, establishing himself as the hot Derby horse right up to the moment he narrowly lost the Blue Grass Stakes 10 days before the big one. He had fractured a coffin bone, and that was that.

Between them, Timely Writer and Hostage sucked most of the air from the pre-Derby room in 1982 with their victories in the Florida Derby, the Flamingo Stakes, and the Arkansas Derby. The big prize at Churchill Downs seemed theirs for the taking.

Then, like a double-barrelled kick to the teeth, they were both eliminated from the imagination. Timely Writer was hit with a bout of colic that required surgery, while Hostage cracked a sesamoid in a workout four days before the race.

After the rotten luck of 1991 when Santa Anita Derby winner Dinard (ligament) and Wood Memorial winner Cahill Road (fracture) were yanked from the Kentucky Derby dance, fans deserved a smooth 1992. Oh well.

Arazi, the French wonder pony, monopolized most of the headlines and all of the TV time. But it was Santa Anita Derby winner A.P. Indy who had the purists drooling over the price they would get. Then they didn’t, when on the morning of the Derby trainer Neil Drysdale finally announced that the colt’s bruised foot had not healed in time to make the date. Arazi lost anyway.

Event of the Year was an unbeaten son of Seattle Slew who had everyone excited through the first months of 1998, especially after he made light of his opposition in the Jim Beam Stakes. Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer sent his colt out for a routine final work one week before the Derby, then watched him cool out lame with a broken knee. Donna Barton, his work rider, summed up the loss: “I don’t think I could have asked him to work any better,’’ Barton said.

Finally, there must be lumped together from very recent memory such a mountain of evidence that the idea of getting excited over a Derby horse before entries are taken would lean toward masochistic. Quality Road, Eskendreya, Uncle Mo, I Want Revenge – these are but the most famous. The best course might be to enjoy the winners of the Wood, the Florida Derby, the Santa Anita Derby, and the Arkansas Derby for what they did that day and not allow them to be defined by what happens, or does not, on the first Saturday in May.