Bellamy Road tests stature in Kentucky

Churchill Downs - The 131st Kentucky Derby, to be run here tomorrow, has the pundits in disarray. A dozen horses have claims, yet the race could equally script the opening chapter in America’s favourite narrative. Bellamy Road might be a superhorse in the making.

He will have to be outstanding to dispatch a formidable field, but a superhorse? Memories of Smarty Jones linger from 12 months ago, when the rags-to-riches colt was ignominiously retired on his failure to complete the Triple Crown. They don’t like their fly-by-nights here; hence a measured restraint over Bellamy Road’s prospects.

Nevertheless, word on the backstretch is that America’s classic crop is out of the ordinary. As much has been telegraphed in the trials, which have yielded a procession of wide-margin winners. In contrast to those in England, which last all of three weeks, the trials here commence in January. The road to Kentucky is long and treacherous. Those who survive are accorded a healthy respect.

Given the numerous storylines, it is easy to see why the “Run for the Roses” fires the public’s imagination. An event that will draw 150,000 through the turnstiles has never experienced a crisis of confidence. Its allure permeates state borders to unite a parochial land mass. And Louisville reaps the benefit.

Yorkshire folk determined to cash in on Royal Ascot’s pilgrimage north could learn much from Louisville. Hotel rates rise by 500 per cent as the hordes fly in. If the Kentucky Derby deserves its billing as “the most exciting two minutes in sport”, it is also the most expensive.

The swank of Churchill Downs, now gleaming after a $120 million (about £63 million) facelift, makes an incongruous sight, set, as it is, within the sprawling slums of south Louisville. Park a car in the neighbourhood and the $20 residents’ request to “protect your vehicle” is the best bet you’ll strike all week.

Unlike Epsom’s equivalent, the Kentucky Derby refuses to submit to weight of money. Contrasts are everywhere. George Steinbrenner, proprietor of the New York Yankees, owns Bellamy Road, the 5-2 favourite. If Steinbrenner represents American aristocracy, connections of Afleet Alex, the 9-2 second favourite, hail from the same Philadelphia backwater that bequeathed Smarty Jones last year.

Even those perennial Derby trainers, D Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert, are in the shadows this year. Lukas, the high priest of American racing, has been relegated to singing the praises of his former assistant, Todd Pletcher, who saddles three runners tomorrow. Yet Pletcher is himself usurped by Nick Zito, who saddles five — among them Bellamy Road, who was trained last year by Michael Dickinson.

That’s far from the only European link with the race. The strongly-fancied Bandini is owned by Derrick Smith and Michael Tabor, the latter fresh from his Guineas double at Newmarket last week. Then there’s Wilko, a winner for Britain at the Breeders’ Cup, now trained in California by Craig Dollase. An eclectic Kentucky Derby is there for the taking.

This article is a reprint from the Times Online. To view the original article, click here.

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Bookmakers Reviews - 2005-05-07 13:04:37

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