Supporters of Lookin At Lucky, the favorite in Saturday’s 136th running of the Kentucky Derby, hope there is truth in that preceding pearl of wisdom — formed and secreted by the late “Og” Mandino, author of “The Greatest Salesman in the World.” Otherwise there is little chance that the increasingly ironically named colt will make the world their oyster by winning America’s most famous horse race.
“Lucky,” you see, is on quite a roll, the kind that makes humans look skyward and ask any supreme being that might be listening, “Why me?”
The bad luck streak broke from the gate in November, when the previously unbeaten colt drew the widest post in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and was beaten by a head after a wide trip. It stretched its legs in his two starts this spring, when he encountered considerable trouble in the midst of both races.
And it hit full stride on Wednesday at Churchill Downs, when Lookin’ At Lucky, the 3-1 morning line favorite in the Derby, drew the dreaded No. 1 stall in the starting gate.
“He just can’t catch a break,” trainer Bob Baffert lamented moments later.
But luck is the most capricious of forces, and I believe that Lookin At Lucky is long overdue for a fortune correction. He’s my pick to win the Derby and, in the process, prove another maxim: Fortune favors the brave.
Lookin At Lucky, who will be ridden in the Derby by Garrett Gomez, will need every ounce of bravery he can muster for the toughest test of his young life.
And breaking from the 1 hole in the 1¼-mile race for 3-year-olds will only compound the challenge.
That can lead to a serious case of claustrophobia for a horse caught on the fence as the field tightens. Think of being trapped alongside a wall in a crowded New York subway and trying to outsprint 19 other commuters to a single turnstile.
The start will be especially critical, as the 1 post when the starting gate is positioned for a 1¼-mile race is directly opposite the bending rail where the second turn meets the top of the stretch, meaning a horse breaking from that stall has to move slightly to its right before reaching the barrier. If a horse or horses to Lookin At Lucky’s outside break inward, that could force Gomez to pull up sharply to keep his mount from running headlong into the fence.
The history books give some notion of the difficulty of winning the Derby from the rail.
The last horse to triumph from the inside was Ferdinand, who captured the 1986 edition of the Run for the Roses under Bill Shoemaker by dropping to dead last early and then making a furious stretch run before drawing clear.
And the numbers for full or near full fields (18 or more horses) are even more dire. The last horse to win from the rail in a crowded field was none other than the legendary War Admiral in 1937.
The fact is that the 1 post is tied with the 5 in producing the most Derby winners since 1900 with 12.
It’s also a fact that most of the horses who started from the 1 hole since Ferdinand’s victory were lightly regarded long shots, horses like Sedgefield (5th in 2007 at odds of 58.60-1); Nationalore (9th in 1998 at 109.60-1) and Al Sabin (6th in 1992 at 33.30-1 as part of a coupled entry).
That’s why I still have faith in Lookin At Lucky. I believe the best horse in the race drew the rail and that Gomez, arguably the best rider in the country, will be able to find a seam when the time comes for his mount to run.
That will be another key moment in the race, as the riders to the right of Lookin At Lucky will be doing everything they can to keep him pinned along the rail, where tiring frontrunners could force him to slow down or pull up to avoid running up their heels. Gomez will, as they say at the racetrack, “have a target on his back,” and it’s entirely possible his rivals will succeed.
There are other imponderables as well.
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