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By George, it's Derby Day
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The day before the Kentucky Derby, everybody was curious about George.
That would be George Steinbrenner, the New York Yankees boss and owner of the Derby's 5-2 favorite, Bellamy Road.
All eyes will surely be on Steinbrenner today when he takes his place alongside other horsemen at Churchill Downs to watch his strapping colt take on 19 others in the world's most famous race.
Will his horse win, something only two favorites have managed in the last 25 years?
Will that ease the pain of watching his AL East cellar-dwelling baseball team?
How will he act if he loses?
The second most-watched man? That would be trainer Nick Zito, the two-time Derby winner who will send off a record-tying five horses -- a quarter of the field -- including the Boss's baby.
"I'm thankful and grateful for this chance," Zito said Friday morning. "No excuses. I just hope one of them gets us home."
It's his race to lose.
Bellamy Road, winner of the Wood Memorial by 17 1/2 lengths last month, should get off to a fast start.
"He doesn't like horses around him," Steinbrenner's farm manager, Ed Sexton, said. "He likes them behind him."
Zito will also send out High Fly, the 8-1 fourth choice, along with Noble Causeway (12-1), Sun King (15-1) and Andromeda's Hero (50-1).
Trainer Todd Pletcher isn't far behind. A rising star looking for his first Derby win, Pletcher will saddle three horses, led by 6-1 third choice Bandini. Coin Silver and Flower Alley are the others.
The sentimental favorites, however, are Afleet Alex and Greeley's Galaxy.
The second choice at 9-2, Afleet Alex has all the makings of the next "people's horse."
Like last year's Derby winner, Smarty Jones, the colt has a trainer based at a small mid-Atlantic track and a jockey hardly known in racing circles. And like Funny Cide in 2003, "Alex" is owned by a band of fun-loving friends, but this group is donating part of the winnings to a children's cancer fund.
"An amazing story," Afleet Alex trainer Tim Ritchey said. "I'm proud to be part of it."
Greeley's Galaxy has a chance to make 83-year-old Warren Stute the oldest trainer to win the Derby. The last time he was here -- 38 years ago -- Stute's only other starter, Field Master, finished 13th. Charlie Whittingham was 76 when he won with Sunday Silence in 1989.
When 140,000-plus racing fans show up, they'll see a rebuilt Churchill Downs. The historic Twin Spires remain, but seem dwarfed by the larger buildings on either side, full of new luxury boxes, suites and private clubs.
What won't be seen are the drug tests for every horse, before and after the Derby. For the first time, racing officials will conduct pre-race tests for an excessive amount of fatigue-fighting sodium bicarbonate, or "milkshake," and post-race tests will search for more performance-enhancing substances than before.
Only one horse in Derby history has been disqualified for a drug offense: Dancer's Image, who won in 1968.
With Steinbrenner, Zito and Pletcher in the spotlight, trainers D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert are almost afterthoughts for a change, mostly because they have 50-1 shots.
Lukas tries for his fifth Derby with Going Wild, who finished 41 lengths behind Bellamy Road in the Wood; three-time winner Baffert has Lexington Stakes runner-up Sort It Out.
"You've got me backed into a corner, and that's when I'm most dangerous," Lukas warned.
When the starting gate springs open, look for long shot Spanish Chestnut to press the pace with Bellamy Road and High Limit. Afleet Alex, Bandini and High Fly could be close behind, along with Closing Argument and Greeley's Galaxy. Depending on the early pace, the race could set up nicely for closers like Don't Get Mad, Noble Causeway and Wilko.
"If Bellamy Road plans on being on the lead, he better be Secretariat because there's a lot of speed in here," said jockey Jerry Bailey, who will be aboard High Fly. "If he's out there, there's going to be people taking shots at him every eighth of a mile."
This could be Bailey's last Derby. The Hall of Famer said earlier this week that retirement is "somewhat likely." Fellow Hall of Famer Pat Day hasn't retired, but his record streak of 21 consecutive Derbys will end as he recovers from hip surgery.
Post time for the race is 5:04 p.m. CDT, and the forecast calls for partly sunny skies and temperatures as high as 80 degrees. With 20 starters, the purse is the richest ever at $2,399,600, up from $1 million.
An extra $200,000 is included from owner B. Wayne Hughes' supplemental entry fee for Illinois Derby winner Greeley's Galaxy because the horse wasn't nominated to the Triple Crown races.
There's always a little Derby history on the line, too.
-- Wilko will try to end the Breeders' Cup Juvenile jinx. The first 21 BC Juvenile winners have failed to win the Derby.
-- Don't Get Mad could become the first horse since Tim Tam in 1958 to win the Derby Trial and come back in a week -- or less -- to win the Derby.
-- Flower Alley, Greeley's Galaxy or High Limit could become the first winner off four career starts since Exterminator in 1918.
-- Bellamy Road, Closing Argument, High Limit or Wilko could become the first winner off two races as a 3-year-old since Sunny's Halo in 1983.
But this Derby story line comes back to Zito. The only other trainer to send out five horses in one Derby was Lukas, who did it in 1996 and won with Grindstone, by a nose.
"We'll put a suicide watch on Nick if he doesn't win," Lukas said.