Teresa Genaro is a high school English teacher and freelance turf writer whose work has appeared in a variety of turf publications. A former and erstwhile resident of Saratoga Springs, she lives in Brooklyn and writes about New York racing at Brooklyn Backstretch.
This is where it begins. Since 1875 racing fans have flocked to Churchill Downs to watch The Derby -- yes, it's in Kentucky, but we need no modifier. It's The Derby.
Back home in New York, we watch with keen eyes for the winner, for that horse that we hope will become the 12th Triple Crown winner, the first in 34 years, the horse will bring home one of sport's most elusive prizes on our home turf.
We also watch to see how our hometown horses do, those horses that spend much of the year in New York, or the ones that have come to visit and added their names to New York racing history.
This year's Derby isn't short of either of them; if you're a New York racing fan, you've got plenty to root for.
Alpha broke his maiden at first asking last summer at Saratoga for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin and Godolphin Stable. The homebred son of Bernardini has done little wrong in his six lifetime races, five of them over New York strips, the last a neck loss to Gemologist in the Grade 1 Resorts World Casino New York City Wood Memorial. With three wins and two seconds to his credit, New York racing fans have reason to hope that he'll bring roses home to New York and give McLaughlin his first Kentucky Derby victory.
Gemologist, the horse that beat Alpha in the Wood, doesn't boast quite the same New York pedigree. His only start in the Empire State came in the Wood, but he made it a memorable one, running his record to a perfect five-for-five. Trained by Todd Pletcher and owned by Winstar Farm, he hails from the same connections as 2010 Derby winner Super Saver. The only time Gemologist was tested was in the Wood; his tenacity in holding off Alpha will serve him well in a much bigger, much tougher field at Churchill Downs.
Hansen has no New York-based connections, and this nearly white son of Tapit could rightly be called an invader when he shipped to New York to win the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes in March. The reigning 2-year-old champion is owned by Kentucky-based Dr. Kendall Hansen and Sky Chai Racing; he's trained by Michael Maker. His Gotham was noteworthy in that he showed a new dimension, winning from just off the pace instead of on the lead for the first time; should that versatility help him to prevail on Saturday, we'll be able to look at that Gotham as an essential step in his racing maturity. And any horse that wins the Gotham is granted honorary New Yorker status.
Trinniberg and his connections are based in Florida, but they've sure made themselves at home in New York. He looked like a winner in the slop in the Grade 1 Hopeful at Saratoga before giving way late to Spa native Terri Pompay's Currency Swap, losing by less than a length at odds of nearly 70-1. Last out, he was an easy winner of the Grade 3 Bay Shore, leading, as is his wont, every step of the way. Having never raced beyond seven furlongs, he may not be able to carry his speed a mile and a quarter, but if Trinniberg somehow manages to carry the roses, we can say we knew him when.
Based in Maryland, Union Rags lit up both Saratoga and Belmont as a 2-year-old. A seven-length victory in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special stamped him as one to watch, and he didn't disappoint in the Grade 1 Champagne two months later, romping by more than five lengths. His trainer, Michael Matz, and owners, Chadds Ford Stable, both call the mid-Atlantic home, but he commanded the stage in New York last year, and he's got no shortage of fans who'll be rooting for him on Saturday.
Went the Day Well hasn't spent much, if any, time in New York since 2009, but he was born here and that makes him one of us. This well-traveled colt has spent time in Ireland, England, Kentucky, and Florida, but he got his start in the Empire State. He's owned by Team Valor, trained by Graham Motion, and ridden by John Velazquez, the team behind last year's Derby winner, Animal Kingdom, and they hope that he'll become only the second New York-bred to win this country's most famous race.
So this weekend, embrace Kentucky's traditions: make yourself a mint julep, sing along to "My Old Kentucky Home." But when the gates open, keep your eye on the New Yorkers and hope that in five weeks, we're rooting for one of them to wear white carnations and make racing history.