On the Tuesday morning prior to the first Saturday in May, Gallo entered the main track at Churchill Downs astride General Custer. As the horse progressed from the backside area to the dirt oval, Gallo could clearly see the twin spires atop the grandstand: an iconic symbol of the track and the Kentucky Derby. Trailing several lengths behind, CJ and Tackle Tim Tom surveyed the landscape that surrounded them. The trainer, the jockey, and the two horses were experiencing a surreal moment. This vast stadium filled with empty seats was quiet and solitary as the two riders walked their mounts over the soft brown surface. In his mind’s eye, Gallo envisioned the thoroughbreds that had competed here, thundering for home before a crowd that exceeded one hundred and fifty thousand fans. Since 1875, the winners of this race had become household names, often remembered and glorified for decades after their victory. Whirlaway, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Barbaro were examples of thoroughbreds who would survive in the memory of sports fans, based on their exemplary performances in the run for the roses.
“I know we’ve worked this track before, CJ—but there’s just something special about being here during Derby Week.”
“I agree, Mister Gallo. I’ve raced and won here when there were fifty thousand patrons in the stands, but this Saturday, that number will be three times as large. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it.”
One year earlier, Gallo had been at Churchill Downs racing Hit the Bid in the Kentucky Oaks, a sister race to the Derby run on Friday. That was the biggest win in Gallo’s life at that point, but the gravity of winning the Derby with T-three was something he only dreamed about. Now the reality of that task was at hand, and he took a few moments to soak it all in before giving CJ his instructions for exercising the talented black colt. “This is the last day we’ll let him breeze before the race on Saturday. We’ll be taking it easy on him for the next three days. Keep an eye on the heart rate monitor, because I don’t want to exceed the benchmarks we discussed. Let him walk for a quarter-mile and then take him up to a trot, but keep his rate at 130 beats per minute. After a two-furlong trot, let him breeze for two more furlongs and then slow him down to a gentle cantor, no more than 160 beats. You got it?”
“I got it, Mister Gallo. Let’s go T-three, time to get to work.”
As CJ rode off with the colt, Gallo began to ponder all the variables that come into play when running a horse in the Kentucky Derby. For the twenty three-year-olds thoroughbreds entered in the race, some circumstances are fixed, and some are influenced by luck. Each horse will carry the same weight—126 pounds—and run the same one-and-a-quarter mile distance. But the luck of the draw became paramount that Tuesday morning when the race stewards would randomly assign the post positions. Gallo had carefully analyzed the history of this famous race and knew that the influence of the post position on the race’s outcome was far from arbitrary.
Because of the large field of twenty colts, the Derby had to use two starting gates. The main gate holds fourteen horses, and the attached auxiliary gate holds six more competitors. The location in a gate where a horse is positioned can have a substantial impact on racing strategy and, potentially, on the race’s outcome. Logic dictates that the inside posts are favorable since running near the rail is the shortest way around the track. But Gallo knew that was only true in races with fields of ten horses or less. In the Kentucky Derby, there are twenty racehorses leaping from the gate and rushing to secure position before the field heads into the first turn. Significant bumping and jostling take place as the field compresses to the inside of the track. Therefore, the horses on the inside are going to get the worst of it, which could discourage them or negatively impact their positioning.
Gallo figured that horses starting from the outside slots are usually subject to less bumping, but if they don’t make it across the track before the first turn, they’re left wide. In the Kentucky Derby, the turns account for more than 40 percent of the one-and-a-quarter mile race. Gallo calculated that a horse that ran both turns six horses wide of the rail, would end up running a distance fifty yards longer than racers that stayed closer to the infield. In this race, it was paramount to find a balance between far enough inside to save ground, and far enough outside to provide a buffer for the horse when the real running started. The home stretch.
Conventional wisdom among handicappers for the Derby states that the best starting position is in the middle of the gate, numbers five through fifteen. Gallo’s preference was the outside of the main gate—post fourteen—or inside the auxiliary gate—post fifteen—for the extra space they afford. Tackle Tim Tom’s ability to break from the gate fast and clean would allow CJ to avoid the bumper-car environment at the start and maneuver the horse into a rail position on the first turn. In Gallo’s opinion, there wasn’t another horse in the race that ran the turns like
T-three. If he came out of the first turn near the front, he had a good shot at winning the race.
Based on the mathematical analysis or just superstition, Gallo knew he didn’t want gate seventeen. No horse had ever won the Kentucky Derby from that position. For most trainers and jockeys, slot number seventeen was the kiss of death.
Another factor that had a traditional impact on the Kentucky Derby was the weather. May is the wettest month of the year in Kentucky, and many Derbies had been plagued by a slow and sloppy track. Fortunately, this year, Mother Nature and Lady Luck were being kind to the racegoers as the forecast for the balance of the week was cool and dry temperatures with daily highs in the low seventies. Gallo was relieved to discount weather as a factor in the race.
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