Handicapping the Derby: Picking a Winner or Picking Your Favorite Excuse???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Eric Crawford of The Courier-Journal…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Cornering The Market on Sorry Excuses

In most sports, nobody wants to hear excuses from losers. Coaches even go so far as to say, “We’re not going to make excuses,” before they rattle off, that’s right, a series of excuses.

But horse racing is different. In horse racing, the excuse is a respected tradition, a hopeful harbinger even.

In no other sport are fans so eager to “throw out” a bad performance, and nowhere else in sports is the solid excuse for defeat so welcome by the public. The compelling excuse is the get-out-of-jail free card of thoroughbred handicapping.

You’re bound to hear anything. The most famous excuse, perhaps, came in Secretariat’s third-place loss in the Wood Memorial. The tooth abscess that vets discovered was a Triple Crown excuse. It was (1) a nagging but not serious condition that (2) affected the horse’s ability to run but (3) had no bearing on his soundness.

More dubious are the nonspecific excuses, old standbys like “didn’t like the track,” “bad trip” and “didn’t like the distance,” which can be legitimate but must be judged on a case-by-case basis. Too often they are used as a matter of habit, in the “dog ate my bullet work” fashion.

Which brings us to the current Derby field. Seven of the expected 20 starters are coming off victories — but don’t think they aren’t in need of excuses.

Blue Grass winner Brilliant Speed, for instance, lost his only two dirt starts by 19¼ and 21 lengths. And there really is no excuse for that.

Of the others in that group, Toby’s Corner, Pants On Fire, Twice the Appeal and Animal Kingdom might not need an excuse after winning their last race, but they probably need one for just about every other race of their careers.

And then there are your favorites. Dialed In, the only winner of multiple graded stakes races this year, is dismissed from the excuse discussion. He won the Grade III Holy Bull, then could be said to have bounced (receded after a big effort, another historic excuse) to finish second against nonstakes company before winning the Florida Derby.

If Dialed In bounced in his second race of the year, Uncle Mo flushed. He was the probable top choice in the morning line before finishing third in the Wood Memorial, but he’s easily the top choice for best excuse. His connections said he had a gastrointestinal problem that slowed him in the Wood. Who can’t identify with that?

Connections of Soldat, fourth in the Florida Derby, said he didn’t like dirt in his face, and later trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said he didn’t get a good trip (i.e., couldn’t lead wire to wire). On Sunday he added breaking from the No. 1 hole — another classic excuse, the post position.

As excuses go, that’s not a bad effort, certainly better than Todd Pletcher’s Stay Thirsty got after the same race. Pletcher said he had “no excuse” after finishing seventh but on Sunday got into the spirit.

“Stay Thirsty came to the paddock and he was completely drenched,” Pletcher said. “It was almost like an overheating thing. … I don’t know if the heat affected a number of horses, but I thought it was a peculiar race.”

There are others. Mucho Macho Man lost a shoe in the Louisiana Derby. Jockey Kerwin Clark said Decisive Moment was “a tad confused running on Polytrack” in the Spiral Stakes. Tom Walters, who owns Santiva, said his horse “got buried inside” and “never really got to run” while finishing ninth as the beaten favorite in the Blue Grass.

You get the picture. In a wide-open year, in addition to trying to pick the best horse, you also might want to pick the best excuse.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?

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