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May 2, 2014

John Clay: Magic of Kentucky Derby impossible to resist

Trainer Todd Pletcher is not sure We Miss Artie is good enough to run in the Kentucky Derby. Owner Ken Ramsey expresses doubt as well. But this is the Kentucky Derby. So Ramsey is going to take his shot.

LOUISVILLE — Ken Ramsey is 78 years old, and when the day finally comes that he leaves this Earth, the Nicholasville entrepreneur and Thoroughbred horse owner and breeder has already settled on the inscription he will leave behind.

"My slogan right now is: 'Made a lot of good deals, but I went in the hole on this one.'"

That is unless, of course, he wins the Kentucky Derby.

"That," he said this week on the backstretch of Churchill Downs, "will probably be embellished on my tombstone."

All you need to know about the modern-day Kentucky Derby is summed up by Ramsey and his horse We Miss Artie.

A son of Artie Schiller and trained by Todd Pletcher, We Miss Artie had finished eighth on the dirt in the Fountain of Youth Stakes before surprising nearly everyone by winning the Spiral Stakes in a photo finish over Harry's Holiday on March 22 on the Polytrack at Turfway.

Then We Miss Artie turned in a workout over the Churchill Downs track last Sunday that even Pletcher described as poor.

"I'm not sure at all if he should be running in the Derby," the trainer said in an unusually blunt assessment.

Guess what? We Miss Artie is running in the Derby.

"He earned his way in and we're going with him," Ramsey said Thursday morning, four days after the work and two days before the big race. "That's my story and we're sticking to it."

What about the opinion of Pletcher, arguably the world's best trainer?

"I appreciate his honesty," Ramsey said. "I appreciate honesty in all my trainers."

Ah, but the Derby is the Derby.

"Quite honestly speaking," Ramsey said, "if it wasn't for the Derby — and the Derby is very special — we would not be shopping around for a mile-and-a-quarter race on the dirt for We Miss Artie. But this is the Derby, so we're going with it."

"Going with it" has become the prevailing Derby philosophy. If your horse is (a) qualified under the points system and (b) healthy, you go-go-go.

If all entrants make it to the starting gate come 6:24 p.m. Saturday, it will mark the 10th consecutive year that at least 19 horses have run in the Kentucky Derby.

Never mind that in seven of the past nine years, the winner carried odds of 20-1 or shorter.

In five of the past eight years, the winner's odds were in single digits.

On Friday afternoon, the odds for We Miss Artie were 23-1.

There are always memories of the winning 50-1 shots — Giacomo in 2005 and Mine That Bird in 2009 — and owners like Ramsey who want nothing more in life than to win one — just one — Kentucky Derby.

It's not as if Ramsey is a racing neophyte. He and wife Sarah won 2013 Eclipse Awards for both owning and breeding.

Now listen to Ramsey talk about how he came to buy We Miss Artie in the first place.

"We were trying to get a Derby horse," he said. "I told (his farm manager), no fillies, no grass horses, no sprinters; trying to put percentages on my side. I'm not trying to knock the fillies or anything. If we had a filly good enough to be in, she would have run. We were playing percentages."

The percentages say Ramsey's other Derby horse, Louisiana Derby winner Vicar's in Trouble, will not be able to overcome the No. 2 post position, which is the most inside starting spot in this Derby. The Derby hasn't been won from that spot since Affirmed in 1978.

"He could steal the race," Ramsey said of Vicar, who will be ridden by the popular Rosie Napravnik. "Rosie knows what to do and how to handle him. I'm not giving up just because we're in the (inside) hole. You don't see me falling on my sword."

Not when you think you have a chance, even if it's not the best chance, to win the world's greatest race.

"The Derby is a special race, special," Ramsey said. "I'm 78, so I probably only got 20 or 25 more chances to win. So if you've got a horse like We Miss Artie, you put up your money, take your chances and hope it turns out well."

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