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Louisville Greets Tens of Thousands of Kentucky Derby-Bound Visitors . . ....By Nelson Lardner

. . . as the natives prepare to grab their ankles, turn 'em upside down, and shake every nickel out of their pockets.

In terms of boosting the prices of every hotel room, quality restaurant meal and cab ride in sight . . . well, I don't blame the local business community . . . not at all. This is a border-state river town of the past, whose best days are behind it, yet it remains blessed by being the sporting capitol of the world during the first week of May, annually.

The 'Ville was a major-league baseball town, at one time, during the late nineteenth century, but the stories in the contemporary public prints of the abject crookedness of that club are damning. The old ABA's Kentucky Colonels were the best team in that loop during their late-'60s-early-'70s heyday, but when they got lost in the shuffle which dealt four ABA teams into the NBA and dissed the rest, the town's upper-bracket team-sport presence breathed its last.

In the world of thoroughbred racing, though, Churchill Downs is major-league, make no mistake. A deep collection of top-class horses, trainers and jockeys call Churchill home through much of the meeting, and the resulting field sizes make for good betting races and odds that are more than rewarding - when you turn out to be right in your prognostications.

Given anything but horrible weather, they'll draw 100,000+ for Friday's Kentucky Oaks card, and more than that for Saturday's Derby program. Both days will feature multiple stakes races, showcasing the best stock on the grounds, as well as many shipins from other major racing centers.

The newest vanguard of top trainers will dominate the Derby entries, headed by D. Wayne Lukas disciple Todd Pletcher, who may wind up saddling a full one-quarter of the field. But yet another Younger Gun, Steve Asmussen, will be saddling the likely favorite, Arkansas Derby winner Curlin, undefeated in his three career starts, all executed in most-impressive fashion.

This will be the first time any of these 3-year-olds will hook up in combat over the Derby's mile-and-a-quarter distance - which is one of the dominant reasons why the broadly-expected seldom transpires. In a full field, in which there figures to be testing pace pressure throughout, seasoned horses capable of relaxing while biding their time prior to launching their decisive quarter-mile bids are the ones likely to be around at the finish.

It took quite a while before the aforementioned Lukas, one of the dominant American classic trainers of the past quarter-century, managed to win a Derby. Up to that point, he was constantly disappointed by his speed-crazed entrants who failed to relax and stay the trip. Lukas was constantly espousing his view that the race should be shortened to a mile-and-one-eighth - the same distance as such established preps as New York's Wood Memorial, Kentucky's Blue Grass Stakes, and the aforementioned Arkansas Derby. To hell with the precedent established by some really smart people - Lu-kie couldn't get it done. But reconsideration of the lay of the land and some adjustments in his training approaches to the Derby eventually brought success. Lukas finally found the knack with the filly Winning Colors, then followed her up with Thunder Gulch, Grindstone and Charismatic.

Doubt that Asmussen will see Curlin, a horse that's started but thrice, display the kind of maturity that's required to win this race, especially given the field of twenty, laden with an infinitely more-challenging collection of opponents than Curlin's ever faced. Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Street Sense, the likely second choice trained by Derby-winner Carl Nafzger (Unbridled), faces a contrasting set of historical obstacles. Street Sense is the most striking colt in the race from the eye-filling standpoint, but horses that have won the Juvenile - or even finished close-up in the event - have had a hard time coming within hailing distance of the Derby winner.

No Juvy participant has won the Derby since my hero, Sea Hero, managed it in '93 (at a fat 13-1). No Juvy winner has EVER won it. Based on the evidence, a case can be made that it's asking too much of a 2-year-old to fully-exert itself and finish close-up against the best of his generation in the fall, then be expected to come up aces in Louisville six months later. The breed isn't as sturdy as it used to be, and the above serves as meaningful confirming evidence.

Too many of today's classic trainers are essentially keeping their Triple Crown prospects packed in cotton, rather than testing them as they need to be tested. Woody Stephens is spinning in his grave. Once we're blessed with the final entries, the post-position draw and a weather report, we'll be much smarter, and will make more, cogent observations about Derby and surrounding attractions later this week.

Nelson Lardner

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