Trying to predict the winner of a horse race is a fool's game, and doing so for the Kentucky Derby - a jostling, 20-horse charge over a distance none of them has previously mastered - is a game for only the bravest of fools or the most foolish of the brave.
Bill Handleman was my professor as I learned those hard lessons. He was a devoted addict of the calculus required for balancing the limits of a horse's pedigree, its will to run, the savvy of its trainer and jockey, the bias of a particular racetrack, the conditions of the day, the fickle nature of racing luck, and all of those factors as they were measured against the other horses in the race.
He still lost most of the time.
There is a good reason for attempting to beat this game, and it is found behind the teller's cage, where stacks of perfectly good money await those who can get it right, just this once. At the Derby, the large field of possibilities and the enormous pari-mutuel pool filled by the casual betting public can yield immense scores. It is the Super Bowl for handicappers, and a correct prediction in the Kentucky Derby isn't just potentially lucrative (assuming one still has money to wager by the end of a long afternoon), it is a bragging right to savor and recount over the years.
I'm going to tell you right now that Revolutionary will win the 139th Running on Saturday, and I'm going to tell you why. That's the horse Handleman would have picked, and he isn't here to do it.
The first big horse race I covered as a working writer was the 1978 Preakness Stakes. It was a pretty good one to start with, as Affirmed outdueled Alydar down the stretch on the way to the second win of what seemed like just another Triple Crown. We're still waiting for the next one.
I was working at a tiny newspaper on Maryland's Eastern Shore and watched the race from what they laughingly called the Auxiliary Press Box, which is where they put guys like me. That meant you had to lie down on your belly on the corrugated metal roof of Pimlico and peek over the edge, assuming that position lest a stray gust of wind landed you in Cockeysville. (I am not sure this is geographically correct, but every story about Baltimore is funnier if you can drop a Cockeysville reference.)
That race hooked me - that and the following season, when an Eastern Shore-owned horse named Spectacular Bid provided another wild ride and another rooftop memory. I knew what I wanted. I wanted to be the best horse-racing writer in America. Unfortunately for me, I learned very quickly that I wasn't even the best horse-racing writer at the Easton Star-Democrat. That would be Handleman. And I learned it because he told me so.
There are too many things over the years to tell here. Handleman was a great writer and a character and bigger than whatever room he occupied, and he was my best friend. Ed Hilt of the Atlantic City Press always said he knew 10 great sportswriter stories, and Handleman was in seven of them.
Handleman settled in at the Asbury Park Press, which is a great location for someone who wants to be close to Monmouth Park, and he won writing awards and handicapping contests and laughed an awful lot. He went from sports to writing a local column, and he helped people and changed lives and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. That sort of stuff. One day he went to write about Madam Marie, the ancient boardwalk fortune teller whom Bruce Springsteen made famous in a song.
Marie was ill at home and would never return to her "Temple of Knowledge" shack. She died the following month. Handleman had just received a preliminary diagnosis of kidney cancer. It was the last interview Marie gave, and, when she stopped the conversation to ask whether there was a health problem in his own family, Bill's was the last fortune she told.
"Don't give it a second thought," Marie said. "It'll be fine."
Nobody picks the winner every time.
Three years ago, I was at the Derby and Handleman was at Monmouth, in a wheelchair with a group of track friends who took him for race day. We passed around the phone in the press box and told the old stories and pretended to laugh as if there were unlimited races on the card. He liked Lookin at Lucky, but tossed the favorite and was betting Devil May Care. Both finished up the track, and a few weeks later Handleman was dead.
Losing a best friend isn't like losing a race, because there isn't another one 20 minutes later. This week, among the thousand things I miss is Handleman's annual Derby column, which was so spectacularly wrong on such a regular basis. So here is what you might have missed from this year's column. It is somewhat predictable, if you knew the man. What you missed about Handleman, if you didn't, is unfathomable.
First, you toss Orb and Verrazano, except to use in the exotics, because you want to make money. Make up any rationale necessary. Verrazano's sire was More Than Ready (which Handleman naturally picked to win the Derby in 2000), and he won't get the distance. Orb, well, you have to invent a fast pace that doesn't seem in evidence in order to ignore him, but go for it.
Don't even think about Goldencents. He'll be bet down because trainer Doug O'Neill won it last year and because jockey Kevin Krigger is attempting to become the first African American to win the Derby since 1902, and people love to bet a good story. Plus, it's a California horse, and Handleman mistrusted them like feral cats.
Handleman would be picking between Java's War and Revolutionary, two horses that promise a good price and a decent chance. He'd look at Normandy Invasion, too, because he had a soft spot for talent that can't seem to catch a break, but he wasn't soft enough to pick a horse that had just one win in five career starts.
That leaves Java's War and Revolutionary. Java's War ran to a ridiculous win in the Blue Grass Stakes. He was DFL after three-quarters of a mile in a 14-horse field and went seven-wide to win by a neck. Handleman would have liked that, but he also mistrusted horses that need such circus tricks.
No, the pick would have been Revolutionary, with Calvin Borel in the saddle trying to win the Derby for the fourth time in seven years. The horse gets distance from his dam, Runup the Colors, and speed from his sire, War Pass, and he went four- and five-wide to win the Louisiana Derby and doesn't mind slipping through the narrow gaps that Borel prefers.
Not only that, this horse will pay.
I'm not saying Revolutionary will win. I'm saying that's the way I'm betting because it is Handleman's horse, without any doubt. And when the race is over, unlike so many times, he won't be around to lecture me about how exactly wrong I was.
That's probably the part I miss most.