It may have snuck up on us, but this is going to be one crazy sports weekend. We’ve got the NFL Draft, we’ve got NBA playoff action, we’ve got NHL playoff action, and we’ve got the Pacquiao/Mayweather fight.
We’ve also got the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby. With some much going on in the sports world, is there less attention on the Derby this year?
“No, I think it’s actually added to it,” Hall of Fame jockey and three-time Derby winner Gary Stevens said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “Funny enough, one of the horses in the race this year, Itsaknockout, they’ve done a deal with the Pacquiao/Mayweather fight. He’s going to be wearing saddle towels over to the race that have got an advertisement on it. So I think all the great events on the day are just feeding into each other.”
Stevens, who will ride atop Firing Line, last won the Derby in 1997. His most recent Triple Crown win came at the Preakness in 2013.
Stevens was asked if the horses can tell the difference between Triple Crown races and non-Triple Crown races. Do they realize how much bigger races like the Derby actually are?
“Well, they’re realizing right now,” Stevens said. “I was out earlier this morning. Actually road out to the rack with my (horse), Firing Line, and he knows something’s up. The media was out in front of his stable and he started pacing in the stall a little bit, like, ‘What’s up here?’ And he trained super intense this morning – something I hadn’t seen. It was cool to see. But all the preparation in the world can’t prepare him for what he’s going to see on Saturday. It’s going to be totally different than what he’s going to see the next three days. It’s amplified 110 percent.”
The most exciting moments in racing, of course, are when the horses make their final left turn and push for the finish line. A lot goes into those last few gallops. More than you might think.
“One of the biggest things for me, believe it or not, is prior to the horse race,” Stevens explained. “From the time I get up on his back, I got to be the quarterback – calm, cool and collected and just keep my composure. If I lose my composure and start thinking about something else, my nerves start to show and the horse is going to feel it. If he starts to get a little bit edgy, my job is to say, ‘Hey, buddy, we’re here together. It’s cool. We’ve done this before. There’s just more people here today and more horses than you’ve ever raced against.’ So all those points are key. If I can accomplish that in the minutes leading up to the start of the race, that’s half my battle. That makes my job a lot easier once the doors open.”
As of Friday afternoon, Firing Line was an 11-1 favorite to win the Derby, while Dortmund is 5-1 and American Pharoah is 5-2.
“I’m kind of smiling right now,” Stevens said. “Dortmund, he only beat my horse (by) a nose. I’m kind of liking the price right now. As a matter of fact, I might have (to make) a little wager.”
Stevens knows every horse in the Derby very well. He’s spent a lot of time scouting them – “just like a pro scout would follow a college player.” He knows each horse’s tendencies and each jockey’s tendencies. A lot goes into winning a race.
Which is why a lot of horses in the Derby don’t have much of a prayer. In fact, Stevens believes only eight of the 20 horses have a realistic chance to win.
“With 20 horses, there are a number of horses that don’t belong in this Kentucky Derby,” he said. “They flat don’t have the talent. I call them street sweepers. It’s like being on the 110 freeway in Los Angeles early in the morning. You come around the curves, and there’s a street sweeper in front of you and you’re doing 65 miles per hour and you go to slam on the breaks. You got traffic and you can’t change lanes. That’s what happens in the Kentucky Derby. Some of these horses will start getting tired and you’ve got competitive horses inside and outside. That’s what it’s all about.
“The best horse doesn’t always win the Kentucky Derby,” Stevens continued. “I’ll be honest with you. I wish the Kentucky Derby was held to a field of 14 selected horses. Whether that will ever happen, I doubt it. But I wish, especially this year, that it was 14 horses, and the best two or three horses – or the eight horses I’m talking about – would have a legitimate chance. I can almost guarantee you right now that there are going to be three or four of us – we’re going to be eliminated at some part of the race because of traffic.”