04/12/2013 3:56PM

Jay Hovdey: Kentucky Derby mounts tough to handicap

Barbara D. Livingston
John Velazquez elected to stay with Verrazano as his Kentucky Derby mount.

Eddie Arcaro had a problem. On April 9, 1942, in the Phoenix Handicap at Keeneland, he rode the 3-year-old Devil Diver and beat the reigning Horse of the Year Whirlaway going six furlongs in the mud. Two weeks later, also at Keeneland, Devil Diver was scratched out of the Blue Grass Stakes with a minor leg cut, which meant Arcaro switched over to stablemate Shut Out and won the race anyway, with relative ease.

At the time, Arcaro wasn’t known quite yet as the greatest of his generation, but he was getting there fast. He won his first Kentucky Derby in 1938 aboard Lawrin. In 1941 he swept the Triple Crown aboard Whirlaway. He was riding first call for the powerful Greentree Stable and, as such, he had his choice of mounts for the 1942 Kentucky Derby…between Devil Diver and Shut Out.

“It was Devil Diver without hesitation,” wrote John Hervey in “American Race Horses – 1942.” “And, to all and sundry, [Arcaro] was reported as voicing the opinion that he merely had to steer that colt around the course to polish off the race.”

Well, they went ahead and ran the Derby anyway, and as every Kentucky schoolchild knows Arcaro blew it. Shut Out won by 2 1/4 lengths, with Wayne Wright riding, while Devil Diver finished sixth. Poor Arcaro had to wait until 1945 before he won another Derby – his third of five – with Hoop Jr.

[DERBY WATCH: Top 20 Kentucky Derby contenders with odds and video]

The modern version of the Arcaro conundrum was played out this week when John Velazquez, he of the broken wrist and rib, picked Wood Memorial winner Verrazano to ride in the Kentucky Derby rather than Florida Derby winner Orb. Joel Rosario will get back on Orb in Kentucky but had to give up the solid Wood third-place finisher Vyjack, who will now be ridden by Garrett Gomez. At the same time, Javier Castellano threw his Derby chances with Wood runner-up Normandy Invasion instead of Revolutionary, with whom he won Louisiana Derby.

Beyond the households of the jockeys involved, the hand-wringing is slight. We’re not exactly talking Sophie Zawistowski forced at gunpoint to choose between little Jan and Eva. Still, there isn’t a rider alive who wouldn’t give blood to be in the spot enjoyed by Velazquez, Rosario, or Castellano, although if history proves they made the wrong choice, no one will ever let them forget.

Don Pierce never let his pal Bill Shoemaker forget his choice of 1964. That’s when Shoe jumped off Northern Dancer to ride Hill Rise in the 90th Kentucky Derby. Shoemaker already had won the Florida Derby and the Flamingo on Northern Dancer, but he’d never been near Hill Rise, the California colt who’d won six straight with Pierce, including the Santa Anita Derby.

However, in those distant days the Shoemaker name was magic. Owners were giddy when they could get him, while trainers were happy just to be sitting three or four deep with Shoe’s agent, Harry Silbert.

“I remember very well the press conference after the Santa Anita Derby,” said Dan Smith, the respected racing publicist who co-wrote “The Shoe” with the legendary rider. “Someone asked Pierce something like, ‘Now that you’ll be riding Hill Rise in the Kentucky Derby . . .’ But Pierce wavered. He said it wasn’t a sure thing he would be. They were already at work trying to get Shoe.”

Shoemaker added another layer of intrigue, as told to Smith in “The Shoe.” Seems that the guys behind The Scoundrel, the colt beaten only a length in the Florida Derby, were anxious to break up the Northern Dancer-Shoemaker team and made Shoe an offer he might normally refuse. But seeing as how The Scoundrel was owned by Rex Ellsworth and trained by Mesh Tenney, who already had provided Shoemaker with the likes of Swaps, Olden Times, Candy Spots, and Prove It, the rider listened real hard.

“They really didn’t want me on Northern Dancer in the Derby,” Shoemaker noted, “but they said, ‘If you can ride Hill Rise in the Derby, go ahead, because we think he’s the best 3-year-old around. But if you can’t, then we’d like you to be on The Scoundrel and not Northern Dancer.”

Welcome to life at the top.

As it turned out Hill Rise was favored at 7-5 – a lot of that had to do with Shoemaker’s switch – and with a quarter-mile of the Derby left to run they still looked pretty good in spite of a spotty trip. Pint-sized Northern Dancer and Bill Hartack were on the lead, while the much taller Hill Rise was unfolding his long strides steadily on the outside. Hill Rise ended up running his final quarter in 23 and change, which would have been even more impressive if Northern Dancer had not beaten him by a neck. The Scoundrel, under Manny Ycaza, finished 3 1/4 lengths back in third.

A couple of the 2013 Derby scenarios are pretty easy to envision: Velazquez belly down on Verrazano but still losing a close one to Orb and Joel Rosario, or Castellano flying late with Normandy Invasion only to get nailed in the final jump Revolutionary and a rider yet to be named.

Shoemaker, who knew Northern Dancer better than any other rider, always contended that the troubled Hill Rise was the best horse in the race.

“I always liked to tell him I would have beaten Northern Dancer with Hill Rise,” Pierce said. “And he didn’t disagree.”

It’s a racing fate you would not wish on anyone, but it does make for great conversation. And if you are Bill Shoemaker you shake it off, take a deep breath, and come right back to win the 1965 Kentucky Derby on Lucky Debonair.