Horse racing fan Walker Buehler returns home to Lexington this Derby weekend, but he won't be paying attention to the what's going on at Churchill Downs.
Buehler will be otherwise occupied as he and his Vanderbilt teammates play Kentucky in Southeastern Conference baseball on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
Buehler, a junior righthander who's projected to be an early first-round pick in next month's major-league draft, is scheduled to start Sunday's game.
The Henry Clay graduate has attended the Derby only once — in 2008 when Big Brown won — but he always tries to catch the race on TV or radio. He watched last year's Run for the Roses in a hotel lobby, still wearing his uniform, after Vandy won a road game at Missouri.
Never miss a local story.
Buehler's out of luck this year. Saturday's first pitch is set for 6:30, right about post time for the Derby. Not that Buehler is fretting. His focus is helping the Commodores, who are defending national champs, put together a strong stretch run toward the postseason.
Vandy, No. 6 in USA Today's coaches' poll, is 33-13 overall and 15-6 in the SEC. The Commodores lead the Eastern Division.
"We've had stretches where we've played pretty good baseball," Buehler said. "It's tough trying to get through the SEC, but we're sticking together. We're a close team."
Buehler, 6-foot-2, 175 pounds, missed the first three weeks of the season with soreness in his arm. Rest was the remedy, and he's been one of the Commodores' strongest pitchers the last several weeks.
He's 3-1 with a 2.66 earned-run average in nine starts. He had a career-high 13 strikeouts in eight innings of a no decision against Ole Miss three weeks ago. He had nine strikeouts in seven innings of another no decision against Missouri last week.
Buehler led Vandy in wins last year with a 12-2 record. He went 4-3 as a freshman. (He pitched three innings of relief in a Vandy victory at UK that year.)
Buehler was a hard thrower at Henry Clay, with a fastball that topped 90 mph. He also had effective off-speed stuff that he's refined in college. Control is one of his strengths, as reflected in his career numbers: 224 strikeouts and 70 walks in 216 innings.
Buehler's smarts and live arm make him one of the top prospects in the nation. MLB.com columnist Jim Callis projects him going as high as sixth in the June 8-10 draft.
Buehler tries not to get caught up in such speculation. "You can't worry about things you have no control over," he said. "Those are just perceptions other people have. You have to play well to get anything out of it. That's got to be your focus."
Buehler, who is majoring in political science with a double minor in corporate strategy and sociology, enjoys college academics and athletics, so he's not stressing about his draft status.
"We'll just see what happens," he said.
In the meantime, Vandy hopes to make a strong defense of its NCAA title.
Buehler described himself as "a Keeneland guy" who was once a "pretty good little handicapper." How would he handicap the Commodores' run at a second straight national championship?
"I think we've got a good chance," he said. "It's one of those things where a lot of things have to go right. If we get lucky, we've got a shot."
Spoken like a Derby fan hoping to see his horse in the winner's circle.