By Steve Silverman
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It’s turn-back-the-clock day across America, once again.
No, we are not talking about ending daylight savings time, although many believe that is an idea that should be adopted.
We are talking about the Kentucky Derby, an event that allows horse racing to move to the forefront of the sports world once again.
Millennials and other young people may find it hard to believe that there was a time when horse racing, baseball and boxing were the dominant sports across this country, and the only thing that might have been close was college football.
Professional football and the NFL were just starting their existence and had no resemblance to the billionaire-making game that it is enjoyed today. It was a sport that was touch-and-go to find its niche until a running back named Red Grange went on a barnstorming tour across the United States in 1925, showing off how exciting pro football could be.
Grange is credited with drawing more than 65,000 fans to the Polo Grounds for a game with the Giants that helped the team gain its foothold in New York.
But the Kentucky Derby has always captured sporting hearts, along with the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. The latter is even bigger during the times that a Triple Crown winner is still alive. Two years ago, American Pharoah became the first horse to win all three major races since Affirmed turned the trick in 1978.
That 37-year drought had led many followers of the “Sport of Kings” to come to the conclusion that winning the Triple Crown was no longer viable because the competition was too tough and that asking any horse to run 1 1/4 miles, followed by 1 3/16 miles two weeks later and then the 1 1/2-mile marathon three weeks after that was just too brutal.
That theory was torn asunder in 2015, and fans of the sport love to get caught up with a super horse.
There may be no such animal in the 20-horse field that clambers into the gate Saturday evening at Churchill Downs. The top handicappers see this crop of 3-year-olds as wide open, and there are a number of horses that should have a legitimate chance to win the Derby and the other Triple Crown races.
Start off with favored Classic Empire, who will start out of the No. 14 hole and is trained by Mark Casse and ridden by veteran Julien Leparoux.
The 4-to-1 shot has won five of six lifetime races, with his last outing an impressive victory in the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby less than a month ago.
Prior to that, he finished a disappointing third in the Holy Bull Stakes, as he was slowed in that Gulfstream Park race by an abscess in his right foot. The win in the Arkansas Derby indicates that he is healthy again, but the Derby distance and the upgrade in competition could be issues.
Classic Empire figures to get a challenge from second-choice Always Dreaming, who is running out of the No. 5 hole and is trained by Todd Pletcher and ridded by John Velazquez.
Always Dreaming (5-1) is like a lot of modern athletes, because he can be quite temperamental when it comes to training. He has been known to rear up during morning workouts, and can also turn it on and run full out. Pletcher never knows what he is going to get in those situations.
Always Dreaming has not acted up in previous races, and is clearly a talented runner. He has won three races in a row going into the “Run for the Roses,” with his last victory coming at the Florida Derby.
If Classic Empire and Always Dreaming can avoid traffic over the first six furlongs, they should both be able to run their race and engage in a memorable battle down the stretch.
But when there are 20 horses in the field, the race rarely unfolds without pitfalls and problems for the favorites. Over the years, the Kentucky Derby has been a race that longshots have come through quite regularly.
Girvin (15-1), Gunnevera (15-1) and J Boys Echo (20-1) are my choices as the longshots that have the best chance of winning.
However, when it comes down to it, I believe that Classic Empire will get the job done and will put his nose under the wire first.
And for two minutes, horse racing will be on top again. That reign won’t last long, mind you, but it will be a memorable moment and a throwback to a bygone area.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @Profootballboy