LOUISVILLE — He is still one the media flock to whenever they need an opinion, an answer or an amusing anecdote and, with four Kentucky Derby wins on his résumé, D. Wayne Lukas is also the unofficial spokesman when it comes to analyzing the first Saturday of May.
"It's a humbling challenge in every way," the Hall of Fame trainer said Thursday morning. "It's just too tough, everything has to kind of fall into place. It's not like the NBA playoffs. It's one shot."
In the days leading up to the 136th edition of the race, several top contenders have already experienced how crushing the Derby journey can be.
As was the case a year ago, the complexion of the first leg of the Triple Crown has seemingly been changing by the minute this past week with the expected favorite going to the sidelines, a couple surprise entrants getting in, and an impending rainstorm threatening to turn the 11/4-mile classic into a mud bog.
While the 2009 Kentucky Derby lost its favorite the morning of the race when I Want Revenge was scratched because of an ankle injury, trainer Todd Pletcher had to begin this week by announcing on Sunday that Grade I winner Eskendereya — the horse considered to be his best chance at earning an elusive first Derby win — would miss the race because of an inflammation in his left front leg.
The ripple effect from Eskendereya's absence was almost immediate. With his regular rider, John Velazquez, now freed up, Pletcher and owner John Greathouse decided to enter the Grade I-winning filly Devil May Care in the Derby rather than Friday's Kentucky Oaks.
Reigning juvenile champion Lookin At Lucky rightly inherited the role as the morning-line favorite for the race, but his chances for victory got much tougher when he drew the undesirable post-position No. 1 in the 20-horse field.
"I'm just enjoying the moment right now because I know anything can happen," said Bob Baffert, trainer of Lookin At Lucky and fellow Kentucky Derby entrant Conveyance. "I'm just going to stay focused and get that saddle on them. If they win, they win, if they don't, you did your job. That's all you can hope for."
What closers like Ice Box and Awesome Act will depend on is that the pace scenario plays out as expected Saturday.
Several contenders, most notably Conveyance, Line of David and Sidney's Candy, are confirmed front-runners who have yet to show much ability to rate. Others, like Super Saver, Discreetly Mine and American Lion, have also done their best running on or close to the lead.
"I don't see my horses being part of the leaders. That should be Line of David and Conveyance," said Pletcher, who will now saddle four horses in Devil May Care, Discreetly Mine, Super Saver and Mission Impazible as he attempts to end his 0-for-24 Derby streak. "I expect the half-mile split to be somewhere in the :46 range depending on how much Line of David or Conveyance want it. But I don't think any of my horses need the lead."
In addition to the question of who will last over the 11/4-mile distance all the 3-year-olds are trying for the first time, the bigger query is who can handle the potential slop that is slated to be the Churchill Downs oval.
Saturday's forecast calls for rain and heavy thunderstorms throughout the day, and only a handful of horses in the Derby field have past mud experience.
Devil May Care, who trained strongly over the sloppy track earlier in the week, broke her maiden by 43/4 lengths over a sloppy Saratoga surface last August, and Super Saver — in addition to owning a win at Churchill — broke his maiden by 7 lengths in the slop at Belmont Park last September.
"It kind of makes you a little apprehensive because you don't really know," said two-time Derby-winning trainer Nick Zito, who will saddle both Ice Box and Jackson Bend in the Derby. "That's the hard part. You want a fast track. I don't have any barometer to tell if (they will handle an off track). You just don't know. I'm positive they'll like it, but you just don't know."
When Sunland Derby winner Endorsement was injured and forced to scratch out of the race on Wednesday, it opened the door for long shots like Make Music for Me and Backtalk to get into the field.
Though some boast more promising credentials than others, recent history has shown that in a depth-laden Derby, the unexpected may just happen.
"It's very competitive but I think, in my opinion, there are really only five or six horses that really, really fit," said Lukas, who will aim for his fifth Derby triumph with Grade I winner Dublin. "Of course, I say that and a (2009 Derby winner) Mine That Bird or (2005 winner) Giacomo shows up."