May 5, 2023
(UPDATED SATURDAY MORNING FOLLOWING THE SCRATCH OF FORTE)
When I moved to the Nuggets beat early in my journalism career, in a time when that meant traveling
with the team on commercial flights, legendary trainer Bob “Chopper” Travaglini told me two things. This wasn't
a cold introduction, since I knew him when I covered the NHL Rockies. But I would get to know him a lot better.
One: “Piss me off, kid, and your bag’s in Taiwan.”
Two: He mentioned he occasionally would let me know in advance of a trip where he thought it might
be a good idea for me to reserve rental cars.
usually had nothing to do with getting to the hotels, arenas and airports.
was so I could take Chopper to and from horse tracks on off nights, from coast to coast.
knew I didn't mind.
I already had covered the thoroughbreds some at Littleton’s
sprawling Centennial Race Track, which was between Federal and Santa Fe at Belleview, in an area of major commercial development
But it was enjoyable to go to other
tracks and marvel that the same wise guys seemed to be at every track. They were the guys arguing with their buddies in the
mutuel lines, bemoaning the “woulda,” “coulda” and “shouldas” and grousing that the licenses
of the jockeys on the horses that let them down should be revoked before the next race. They also seemed to be at the other
tracks I visited in my later newspaper travels after leaving the Nuggets beat, and in occasional junkets to tracks on vacation
— most notably Santa Anita Park, Hollywood Park, Arlington Park, Belmont Park, Pimlico and Bay Meadows. I loved wandering
around to the grandstand, clubhouse, and paddock. Often, I'd hang at the rail to watch the race.
Later, I made it a habit to venture to Centennial's replacement, Arapahoe Park
in Aurora, mainly to find and tell stories of the horse-racing life.
I don't close my eyes and ears to documented maltreatment of thoroughbreds at tracks major and
minor, including the use of performance-enhancing substances. Still, I believe it's at least more zealously policed than it
used to be. Call me naive. More on this, and specifically about Churchill Downs, later.
But this is the first Saturday in May. That means only one thing …
It's Derby Day.
The Kentucky Derby.
I’ve never been to Louisville for a Derby. Yes, it’s
on the list, one of the few major events I haven’t been able to check off.
The Derby is one of those phenomena that defies rational explanation,
other than the power of a bandwagon effect. The two minutes between the opening of the starting gates and the winner crossing
the finish line don’t look much different than what takes place in thousands of races annually from coast to coast,
at tracks both major and minor.
A routine day at Saratoga shared
the top billing with the 1936 Olympics in the New York Times. The decathlon champion in the headline was Glenn Morris,
from Simla and Colorado A&M / State and the protagonist in my book Olympic Affair.
Yet it’s a short-lived flashback to when horse racing
and boxing coverage often outstripped the attention paid to, say, the NFL and the Olympics in the nation’s major sports
It’s the Derby, darn it.
Scheduled post time is 4:57 p.m. Mountain. NBC and Peacock's coverage of the racing
program begins at 10 a.m., and the official Derby coverage show starts at 12: 30 and runs until 5:30. The buildup to
the race itself will rival Super Bowl coverage, with portraits of owners, trainers, jockeys, and — yes — the horses.
the time the Churchill Downs bugler plays the call to the post and the horses come on the track, it can almost seem as if
you’re watching a "Saturday Night Live" parody. But you’re willingly going along with the skit, and
it continues through the race and in the immediate aftermath as the winner’s chances of going on to also win the Preakness
and Belmont and the Triple Crown already are broken down.
still more to thoroughbred racing, much more, than the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup races in November.
That includes at Arapahoe Park, now known as Bally's Arapahoe Park, which has carved out a nice little niche as Colorado’s only track of
note, running a mixed thoroughbred/quarter horse meeting from June 17 to September 11 this year. Live racing is pretty much
a loss leader for the track’s ownership, which also operates or licenses Off Track Betting satellite wagering facilities taking bets on other tracks races around
the country. The state requires live racing at Arapahoe Park as part of the tradeoff.
the years, I’ve enjoyed writing about the track’s Runyonesque characters, whether jockeys or trainers. The
state’s horse racing community of breeders and owners also is full of intriguing personalities.
None of them were connected to a Kentucky Derby winner.
They still can dream, though. Dreams are the only sure thing
at the track — whether Churchill Downs or Arapahoe Park or anywhere else.
wagering in the Churchill Downs pool began Friday and as expected, the favorite as of Saturday morning was Forte, at 4-1.
He had won six of his seven lifetime starts. His trainer is Todd Pletcher, whose previous Derby
winners were Super Saver (2010) and Always Dreaming (2017). But in a shocking development, Forte was scratched Saturday morning, leaving 18 in the field. Forte was the fifth scratch.
comes in a week in which five horses have died at Churchill Downs and two of them were trained by Saffie Joseph Jr.
Joseph also trained a Derby entry, Lord Miles, and that horse was scratched because Joseph Thursday was suspended and horses in his stable
were barred from running in Kentucky "until further notice." (Details.)
After a run through the Daily
Racing Form earlier in the week, my pick was Confidence Game. He was listed at 20-1 on the morning line at the time. Official betting in the Churchill Downs pool began Friday. After
Forte's scratch Saturday, Confidnce Game was 16-1. He has won three of his seven career starts. He's coming off a win in the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park. (That
was 10 weeks ago, though, and that's considered an unorthodox layoff.) He has earned $785, 525. His trainer is Keith Desormeaux
and his jockey is James Graham.
of the rationale for that pick was -- and is -- staying away from the favorites. Part of it is hunch. And part of it is knowing
that in what remains a large field, darned near anything can happen.
USA Today story that includes a picture of Confidence Game.
sport is far from perfect. Always has been far from perfect. But for one day, it rules.
Mage was the upset winner at 15-1. Confdence Game was 10th. You win some, you lose some.
Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson dabbles with partners in racehorse ownership.
Here, he's with Crosscheck Carlos at Del Mar. He has named other horses after Avalanche teammates. My 2016 story.
A sampling of my Colorado horse-racing stories:
Colorado's Whittham family makes the starting gate at Kentucky Derby
Ellite jockey Tracy Hebert's comeback trail makes stop at Arapahoe Park
Jonathan Horowitz calls the races
Jockey Kelsi Purcell puts horrible fall in rear-view mirror
First a trainer at 16, Temple Rushton still a Colorado stalwart
Cantankerous Willard Burbach is state's top breeder-trainer
Former rodeo star Sean Davis in standout second career as trainer
Linda Wood of Menoken Farms doesnt let go of her babies
Hanging with the jockeys
Terry Frei's web site