LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Friends Lake, winner of the Florida Derby, is one of the forgotten horses of the 130th Kentucky Derby. So is Read The Footnotes, who ran fourth in the Gulfstream Park race.
Not running for weeks at a time can push a horse into obscurity. Friends Lake was fairly obscure entering the Florida Derby, winning at 37-1, but he'll have had seven weeks off when he runs Saturday at Churchill Downs.
The Churchill linemaker, Mike Battaglia, made Friends Lake a 15-1 longshot -- and The Cliff's Edge the favorite at 4-1 -- when a capacity field of 20 horses was entered Wednesday. If nothing happens to any of the 3-year-olds between now and Saturday, this will be the first 20-horse Derby field since Swale was the winner in 1984.
Many trainers, starting with Bobby Frankel, who'll be running Master David, don't want to be favored. It's easy to see why. When Fusaichi Pegasus won in 2000, he was the first favored Derby winner since Spectacular Bid in 1979. No favorite has won the Derby since Fusaichi Pegasus, including Frankel's Empire Maker, who ran second to Funny Cide last year.
Before the last dollar has been sent through the windows Saturday -- a record $9 million was bet on the race last year -- many think that this year's post-time favorite, presumably The Cliff's Edge, will be the longest-priced in history. That distinction now belongs to Harlan's Holiday, who was 6-1 when he ran seventh in 2002.
There were no unexpected entries when each owner put up $15,000 to enter Wednesday. It will cost another $15,000 to run, with first place in the $1.2-million race worth more than $800,000. On the outside looking in, because their graded-stakes earnings were the lowest of the 22 hopefuls, are a couple of top horses -- Eddington, the third-place finisher in the Wood Memorial, and Rock Hard Ten, who was third, after being disqualified from second, in the Santa Anita Derby. Churchill Downs officials appear to be happy with the earnings rule that determines the field when more than 20 horses want to run.
The Cliff's Edge will break from the No. 11 post. The second and third choices on the morning line -- undefeated Smarty Jones at 9-2 and Tapit at 8-1 -- drew Nos. 15 and 18, respectively. They'll start from the auxiliary gate, which takes care of the outside six horses. The extra gate used to be anathema at the Derby, but not anymore. For three consecutive years, starting in 1999, Charismatic, Fusaichi Pegasus and Monarchos won from 16, 15 and 16.
The Daily Racing Form has dubbed this running the "Demolition Derby," because Saturday's race will be run before Churchill's $121-million renovation plan has been completed. Many areas of the track -- including the press box and Millionaires' Row, where more than 3,000 of the Beautiful People watch the race -- are unfinished. The denizens of Millionaires' Row have been exiled to designer tents in the infield, where between 50,000 and 75,000 rowdy members of the hoi polloi party hard and seldom see a horse.
Security that separates the groups will be heavy, as it will be throughout the track. Brokers are said to have had trouble moving seats in other infield tents, but a crowd of 140,000 is still likely. The chance of rain has been increased, to 50%, which could result in the first off-track for the Derby since 1994.
"I think we'll be all right," said Tom Meeker, CEO of Churchill Downs Inc., whose other racing properties includes Hollywood Park. "There are bound to be a few glitches, but we hope the public will understand. We've done our best to be ready for whatever comes up."
Battaglia, the son of a racetrack linemaker, visited Friends Lake's barn Wednesday morning, and a discussion of the Derby odds ensued with John Kimmel, who trains the New York-bred colt. Last year, Funny Cide became the first New York-bred to win the Derby, and this year Friends Lakes is joined by another New Yorker, Read The Footnotes.
When Battaglia told Kimmel that he had his horse pegged at 15-1, Kimmel thought that was about right. What Kimmel couldn't understand was Friends Lake's $76.80 payoff for $2 in the Florida Derby.
"We were 3-1 in the Holy Bull the race before that, and after running third, we went to 37-1," Kimmel said. "I thought we might have been 15-1 there too. But that's all right. I was very happy going to the windows with my tickets."
The 49-year-old Kimmel, who finished fifth with Wheelaway in his only previous Derby appearance, bet $100 to win and $100 to place on Friends Lake. He collected $5,080.
After Frankel won last year's Florida Derby with Empire Maker, he immediately said that the horse wouldn't run again until the Kentucky Derby. Then the next day someone told Frankel that a horse hadn't won the Kentucky Derby without running in April since Needles in 1956. Genuflecting to history, Frankel won the Wood Memorial, three weeks before the Derby, and then Empire Maker finished behind Funny Cide here.