Rick Bozich hands out grades for Kentucky Derby 139.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Handing Out My Kentucky Derby Report Cards In Two Minutes and Change:
Trainer Shug McGaughey – A. Nobody wondered if Shug would have Orb ready. He spaced the colt's races and workouts like a Hall of Famer. He had a fresh, determined horse. Orb ran the race he was supposed to run, something that rarely happens with Derby favorites.
But Shug also had Shug ready. He deserves praise for that, too.
I've seen trainers leave their feed tubs at Churchill Downs. Shug admitted he has been one those guys. This time he embraced everything – the silly questions, the suffocating crowds, the persistent cameras, and the unending hype. He handled it all like he was having the time of his life.
Jockey Joel Rosario –A-plus. Is there a better jockey in the game? You'll have to convince me. Rosario did not make a signature move by knifing to the rail or splitting horses like Adrian Peterson.
But that's the point. He rode a poised, intelligent race, understanding the blistering pace and keeping the winner out of trouble by going wide. Rosario knew he had plenty of horse when the serious running began, and he made certain Orb did not repeat his risky habit of easing up after he made the lead.
Owners Stuart Janney III and Ogden Mills Phipps –A. Critics who wanted to see more joy from two old-school owners who have waited a lifetime to win the Derby are missing the point. Janney and Phipps had the grace to celebrate like they've been there before even if they hadn't been there before. Imagine.
Unlike too many recent Derby winning connections, there's nothing in Orb's owner/trainer/ jockey pedigree that will make horse racing blush as the Triple Crown moves to Pimlico and Belmont.
And in a year when the press box was closed and the media shuffled away to watch the race on television from a building without a view of the track, a special salute to Phipps.
The first person he recognized in the post-race press conference was legendary Atlanta sports columnist Furman Bisher, who died in 2012. Phipps knew that Bisher loved the Derby as much as Phipps did – and I can only imagine what Bisher would have said about traveling to Louisville, paying $540 a night for a $120 hotel room and then watching the race on TV.
Actually, I think I know.
Trainer Todd Pletcher – C-minus. It's not simply that Pletcher's five starters finished third (Revolutionary); 9th (Charming Kitten), 11th (Overanalyze); 12th (Palace Malice) and 14th (Verrazano), pushing Pletcher's Derby record to 1-for-36 – with five horses in the money.
It's the way his horses ran. He added blinkers to Palace Malice – and the colt took off as if the Derby distance had been changed to six furlongs, establishing a pace that was guaranteed to collapse and benefit closers like Orb and Golden Soul.
The problem is that Pletcher's closers didn't take advantage of that silly strategy.
Nerlens Noel – A-plus. Noel has lived in Kentucky for less than a year, but he already understands Southern hospitality. Kelly Melton is a 7-year-old fighting leukemia who will never forget the day he went to the Kentucky Derby with a famous University of Kentucky basketball player. That's special.
California Horses –F. Now we know why only one horse came to Churchill Downs from the Santa Anita Derby. Goldencents beat two horses. Wake up, Los Angeles. USC football, UCLA basketball, the Lakers, the Clippers and California horses – it's been a miserable year in Southern California.
Louisiana Horses – A-minus. The horses that trained in New Orleans last winter didn't win the Derby, but raise a bottle of Abita in their honor anyway. The horses that finished second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth all raced at least once at The Fairgrounds during the winter.
The group was led, of course, by Golden Soul, trained by Dallas Stewart, who rocks New Orleans Saints' gear on every occasion. Stewart's gritty colt passed 13 horses in the final half-mile. I'm guessing there's some Derby jambalaya in Stewart's future.
Churchill Downs –C-plus. The security lines moved briskly, the stars continue to turn out and the Derby delivered its annual 2:02.89 of drama. But the feeling persists that too many local fans have been squeezed out of the weekend fun because of soaring prices and catering to out-of-towners. Not that Churchill cares.
NBC TV Coverage – A. Larry Collmus delivered on the race call. His first mention of Orb noted that the colt was third from last. On the backstretch, Collmus talked about the blistering pace for the first half-mile and that Orb was 15 lengths behind but beginning to move. Collmus made certain viewers knew that Orb was ready to take the lead.
Randy Moss and Jerry Bailey told you which horse was going to win. Tom Hammond and Bob Costas know how to set a scene.
Even Michelle Beadle delivered, providing some laughs with a feature about the preposterous challenge of calling a race. Nice to see that NBC is secure enough with the work of its first teamers that it doesn't treat the telecast as serious as heat stroke.
I'm guessing that Beadle, and her nearly 750,000 Twitter followers, helped NBC earn its best Derby ratings in 21 years.