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For horse people, Churchill Downs is place to be

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The thing that matters most is that he is in the game.

Optimizer, trainer D. Wayne Lukas’ record 45th Kentucky Derby mount, is a 50-1 shot to win the 138th Run for the Roses on Saturday at Churchill Downs, but you never know.

Once they sing ‘‘My Old Kentucky Home’’ and the horses burst from the starting gate, it’s anybody’s show. The odds say it won’t be Optimizer cashing the $1.4 million first-prize check, but this is a field of hopeful long shots, with eight horses in the 20-thoroughbred field rated at either 30-1 or 50-1.

When asked Thursday if he could remember the names of all his Derby entries without a cheat sheet Lukas chuckled and said: ‘‘No. About 24 of them, I didn’t want to run.’’

Basically, he was saying owners who trusted his training wanted their horses in the race. Lukas can remember the names of his four Derby winners — Winning Colors, Thunder Gulch, Grindstone and Charismatic — and 10 other Triple Crown stakes winners.

All horse people want to be part of the weeklong festivities at Churchill Downs. It’s dreamer’s week in the horse business, and it’s better to be on the inside — even if the pace is likely to leave your favorite horse trailing.

‘‘It’s like Christmas is for kids,’’ said trainer Steve Asmussen, who, like Lukas, is headquartered at Churchill Downs’ barns. ‘‘This is the pinnacle of the sport right now.’’

Asmussen has two entries in the Derby, 15-1 Daddy Nose Best and 30-1 Sabercat.

‘‘It’s exciting,’’ Asmussen said of having two horses in the hunt that are also familiar with Churchill Downs’ track. ‘‘You’ve got twice the chance. It’s been smooth for both of them.’’

The favorite is Bob Baffert’s Bodemeister at 4-1. Union Rags is 9-2. Gemologist is 6-1. Bodemeister won the Arkansas Derby by 9½ lengths, and that margin grabbed oddsmaker Mike Battaglia.

‘‘His Arkansas Derby was huge,’’ said Battaglia, who indicated he considers Union Rags a co-favorite.

Outside the barns, the sun began to bake the back side. The temperature for the Derby is expected to approach 90 degrees. That’s pretty warm for a 1¼-mile challenge.

‘‘They’ll all be going through the same conditions,’’ Asmussen said.

The optimum temperature?

‘‘Whatever causes you to win,’’ he said. ‘‘No excuses on the temperature or track conditions.’’

Lukas began his sports career as a high school basketball coach, but he looked every inch the cowboy Thursday, sporting a white cowboy hat and chaps. Lukas still rides the horses that accompany his racers to the track.

Lukas said the prospect for a hot day for the big race doesn’t appeal to him.

‘‘It doesn’t help,’’ he said.

It probably will be just as steamy Friday for the Kentucky Oaks, the race for 3-year-old fillies. The favorite is 5-2 Grace Hall. The next choices are On Fire Baby and Broadway’s Alibi at 4-1.

Lukas has a horse in the Oaks, too: Colonial Express is 50-1.

‘‘It’s kind of wide-open,’’ Lukas said. ‘‘We could slip under the radar.’’



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