Derby: contest without equal

Late Saturday afternoon, up to 20 horses will go to the post for the 137th Kentucky Derby.

This 19th-century brainchild of Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., nurtured into the 20th century's first sports spectacle by Matt J. Winn, this "Run for the Roses," this little old horse race beneath the twin spires of Churchill Downs, continues to reign as "the greatest two minutes in sports."

TV ratings and sportswriters don't make it so. Neither do the 125,000 to 150,000 people who attend each year. Many of them couldn't care less whether they see a horse. They're there to party, to people-watch or to be watched by other people.

The Kentucky Derby is the greatest two minutes in sports because of Aristides, Donerail ($184.90 to win), Regret, Gallant Fox, Twenty Grand, Whirlaway, Citation, Tim Tam, Northern Dancer, Genuine Risk, Winning Colors, Unbridled, Smarty Jones, Barbaro and 100-plus other winners.

Because of Isaac Murphy, Earle Sande, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, Ben and Jimmy Jones, Eddie Arcaro, Bill Shoemaker, Bill Hartack and hundreds of other jockeys and trainers.

It's the greatest two minutes in sports because jockeys Don Meade and Herb Fisher duked it out down the stretch before Meade's horse, Brokers Tip, won the 1933 race. Because Shoemaker mistook the finish line and stood in his stirrups too early, allowing Hartack to get Iron Liege under the wire ahead of Shoemaker's Gallant Man in 1957.

Because Dark Star upset Native Dancer in 1953. Because it was the first of three epic Triple Crown duels between Affirmed and Alydar. Because Alysheba, after stumbling and nearly going down in the stretch, had the heart to win in 1987.

Because, well, because there was Secretariat, who made the Derby the greatest one minute, fifty-nine and two-fifths seconds in sports.

Mostly, though, it's the greatest two minutes in sports because, when the starting gate opens, there are no timeouts — commercial or otherwise — to diagram a Hail Mary pass or a last-second shot.

No pit stops for gas and new tires. No waiting for the wind to come from the right direction for that crucial Sunday afternoon tee shot on the 12th hole at Augusta. No pinch-hitters or closers coming in from the bullpen.

There's just a hundred pounds of jockey sitting atop a thousand pounds of thoroughbred, going out to compete for racing's most cherished prize with 15 to 20 similar duos in a sport that requires an exquisite sense of timing, the strength to rate a horse whose every instinct tells him to outrace the wind from first step to last and the courage to squeeze that horse through a pinprick-size opening along the rail when the time is right.

Picture Calvin Borel's boot brushing the rail as he guided Mine That Bird inside one of the 18 horses he passed in a last-to-first 2009 victory.

There is infinite danger every step of the way — and the rarest of beauty as horse and rider seemingly merge into one perfectly coordinated being, flying through the stretch to the roar of 100,000-plus voices.

That's real goose-bump time. That's the Kentucky Derby.