05/04/2012 11:26 am ET Updated Jul 04, 2012

Kentucky Derby: As in Politics, You Need a Horse, and a Theory

LOUISVILLE -- Once you come back here, as we did Thursday night, you remember what you used to know when you lived here but forgot: that everybody has to have a theory and a horse.

It doesn't matter if you are a Louisvillian, or a regular visitor, or a first-timer. You are required to pick a horse, preferably a semi-obscure one, and have at the ready a plausible explanation -- either impressively informed or simply wacko -- for your cool choice.

There are 20 horses in the Derby, and already I've heard tips and touts about a half-dozen of them. Soon I will no doubt have heard an argument for each and every one.

The Derby is like politics in so many ways. Someone runs. Someone wins. People contribute money and get their hopes up. There is a weird sense that somehow all of your problems will be solved and the world will right itself if only you find the right contender.

And then in two minutes the hopes and dreams of almost everyone are dashed, and the process starts up again.

There are many basic strategies for how to pick a horse. The following list is based on the combined buzz at two of the city's premiere restaurant/bars: a new spot called Rye, in an area called "NuLu," and another, part of the 21c Hotel downtown, called Proof on Main. (Whiskey themes are taking over Louisville):

  • Bodemeister, 4-1. Everyone loves the affable and media-friendly Bob Baffert, and so they like the horse he's trained but not raced very often. If you are here and have no other theory, this is the default. The horse won the Arkansas Derby by 9 lengths, which is why he earned the top spot in the derby of conventional wisdom.
  • Union Rags, 9-2. Michael Matz trained Barbaro, who won here and died tragically in 2006. Matz runs his horses more often as two-year olds. A lot of turf-writers like this horse and the trainer, and there is sentiment for the memory of Barbaro.
  • Optimizer, 50-1. This longshot was being touted by a very smart out-of-town freelance writer who has traveled the world and won many awards. It's a cool bet because this horse will go off at very lucrative odds and is trained by the legendary D. Wayne Lukas, who has won many races at Churchill Downs.
  • Hansen, 10-1. A Louisville businessman we met loves this horse, apparently for one understandable reason: Hansen is pure white, a rarity at the Derby and evocative of the white buffalo in the legend of the Lone Ranger.
  • Gemologist, 6-1. Everyone knows the trainer Todd Pletcher, which is why this horse has some buzz.
  • Sabercat, 30-1. I've know John Yarmuth for nearly 40 years, back to the day when he was a GOP Hill aide and then publisher of a city magazine here. Now, of course, he is the popular Democratic Congressman representing the city and surrounding areas. He knows his horses -- he was once part of a syndicate that owned what could generously be described as a racehorse -- so he thinks that he can spot a winner on sight. The other day at The Downs he saw Sabercat working out, and he liked what he saw. "He looked like such a smooth runner, I just liked him," Yarmuth said. So, he added, was the guy who won the national handicappers award last year.
  • I'll Have Another, 12-1. Give what this weekend is going to be like, I'll mention this horse for no other reason than the highly appropriate name.