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Nations: A Derby dilemma for dad

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Jeff Nations

By Jeff Nations - jnations@nvdaily.com

I have a real dilemma on my hands this week as I start to anticipate the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby, a.ka. "The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports."

By now, I should have my horse picked out and be well on the path toward justifying why my highly unscientific and downright unwise picking strategy will pay off this year -- unlike every other running, save one, of the Derby I've ever been foolish enough to throw away good money on over the years.

Here's my problem, or one of them: I'm an absolute, unfailing, unreformed sucker for a gray horse, or a black horse, or even a roan. This goes back to my college days, and a certain all-nighter a classmate and I pulled the night before attending a seminar/junket at Louisville's Churchill Downs headlined by the great, late Jim McKay.

That night, 1992 if memory serves, Nolan Ryan was pitching yet another gem for the Texas Rangers against my beloved Oakland Athletics. It was must-watch television, and being a West Coast game it ended up a late night ... as in, no sleep before boarding a shuttle bus for the trip over to the track at 6 a.m., on the nose.

Let's say that we weren't at our sharpest that morning as we stumbled about the infield, entirely missing our opportunity to schmooze with the venerable Mr. McKay or any track official in attendance. Instead, we blearily focused our attention on a horse heading out to the track for a workout, walking backwards for some bewildering reason which we found inexplicably hilarious.

That horse was gray. History turns on the strangest moments, you know.

So there it is -- ever since, I cannot be redeemed come Derby time. If there's a gray horse, or a black, or a roan, that's my horse.

Here's the problem: Part of me so very much wants and hopes that my horse -- we'll get to that later -- doesn't have the distance to run with Clarke County-bred Bodemeister. For the first time since I moved to the Shenandoah Valley more than a decade ago, a horse from this region -- our region -- is not only a Derby runner but a bona fide contender to win the first leg of the Triple Crown. Bred by Audley Farm, Bodemeister is a lightly-raced 3-year-old running for instantly recognizable trainer Bob Baffert and owned by Ahmed Zayat.

Sadly for me, Bodemeister is as brown as they come in terms of horses. Even worse, I'd already locked on to this year's annual Derby winner. His name is Hansen, and he's ... well, he's a unicorn.

OK, maybe not with the horn and all, but when I showed a photo of Hansen to my 4-year-old daughter Zoe, she flatly told me, "It's a unicorn." I can see her point; Hansen, technically a gray or roan, is nearly a pure white colt, so much so that co-owner and breeder Dr. Kendall Hansen has dubbed the reigning 2-year-old champion "The Great White Hope." In effect, Hansen is the ultimate gray horse (technically speaking) and a slam-dunk Derby favorite for yours truly.

This is troublesome, for certain. On the one hand, there is my well-documented penchant for grays and roans, no matter how sway-backed (in retrospect) or stumble-footed on the track. This particular weakness is now reinforced by my daughter, who will be watching her second Derby with mom and dad, and likely her first with a rooting interest. She loves all horses, of course, but Hansen had better win -- or sprout wings Pegasus style and fly off over a rainbow to a magical kingdom far beyond this realm.

Then along comes Bodemeister, a Virginia-bred with real local connections via his breeding at historic Audley Farm. A Derby victory would bring welcome attention to this underrated and overlooked segment of the Thoroughbred breeding industry, in both Virginia and West Virginia. Unraced as a 2-year-old, Bodemeister burst to the forefront of the Triple Crown trail with his blistering 9 1/4-length victory in the April 14 Arkansas Derby. It was just the fourth start for the son of Empire Maker, and set the stage for another installment of a familiar storyline at Churchill Downs.

No horse since Apollo in 1882 has won the Kentucky Derby without racing as a 2-year-old. Hall of Famers Coaltown (1948), Forego (1973) and two-time Horse of the Year Curlin (2007) have been among those unraced juveniles whose hopes were dashed in Louisville, Ky.

Then there's Baffert, who suffered a heart attack shortly before the Arkansas Derby while in Dubai for the World Cup and underwent surgery on two blocked arteries. The feel-good storylines punctuated by a Bodemeister victory just keep piling up.

So there's the trouble, and I'm still on the fence. Root against a unicorn (not openly, mind you) or against a hometown horse?

That's one decision I won't have to make until Saturday, at least, come post time. Enjoy the race.

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