With just the sixth female jockey ever and two female trainers, Saturday's 137th running of the Kentucky Derby is taking on something of a "year of the women" theme even though there are no fillies running.
But as Jennie Rees of the Louisville Courier-Journal told All Things Considered host Melissa Block today, the compelling story lines for this year's race don't stop there.
-- Mucho Macho Man's trainer, Kathy Ritvo, is a heart transplant recipient. "Every day is a dream for her," Rees says. And Ritvo is hoping to use some of the attention she's getting to raise awareness about organ donation and to show other organ recipients that they can still lead active, full lifes. (Mucho Macho Man's odds of winning at this moment are 11-1.)
-- Jockey Rosie Napravnik, who will be aboard Pants on Fire (8-1), is the first woman to come into the derby "riding a horse that actually won an important race in its last start;" the Louisiana Derby. And she won riding titles at Delaware Park and the New Orleans Fair Grounds, leading Rees and other racing writers to conclude she has a good chance to become the first woman to ride a Kentucky Derby winner.
-- And while current favorite Dialed In (9-2) is "getting decidedly little buzz," Rees says, because he's only run in four races, she still believes it will be "a great race."
"Some people [such as The Washington Post's Andrew Beyer] have suggested this field is substandard," Rees says. "And they did have some good horses get hurt or become ill at the wrong time [and] not make the field. ... [But] there won't be a dry eye in the joint when they start singing My Old Kentucky Home."
And it will be a great race, Rees maintains, because she says there are many horses with good chances of finishing in the money. Along with Mucho Macho Man, Pants On Fire and Dialed In, she says horses that are worth watching include:
-- Brilliant Speed. (29-1)
-- Animal Kingdom. (26-1)
-- Nehro. (7-1)
-- Archarcharch. (12-1)
It's also worth noting that the current odds on Twice the Appeal, with jockey Calvin Borel, are 8-1. Borel has been aboard three of the past four Kentucky Derby winners, including Super Saver last year.
In the end, Rees advises, because of its strong talent and large field (19 horses this year) in the Kentucky Derby, "you've got to be the luckiest horse," not just the most talented.
Earlier today, another of the favorites withdrew. Uncle Mo (the 9-2 choice) was scratched "because of a puzzling internal ailment that has reduced his appetite and energy," The Associated Press writes.
Post time for the Derby is 6:24 p.m. ET.
Jennie Rees of the Louisville Courier Journal will be covering the Derby as she has for the last 26 years. And she joins me now from Churchill Downs. Jennie, welcome to the program.
JENNIE REES: Well, thank you very much, Melissa.
: Jennie, let's talk first about the woman jockey. Rosina Napravnik, 23 years old. She'll be riding Pants on Fire. How does she look?
REES: Usually the female riders are picking up, you know, long shots and horses that were maybe third or fourth in their last race. And it would certainly break down, I think, a lot of barriers if Rosie Napravnik - not only if she won the Derby, but even if she hit the board. No female rider has even hit the board in the Kentucky Derby.
: And when you hit the board, you mean what?
REES: One, two, three and some people consider it four.
: So a woman jockey this year in the Derby, and two women trainers. Only 13 have been in the Derby before now, and they are Kathleen O'Connell, who is the trainer for Watch Me Go, and Kathy Ritvo, trainer for Much Macho Man. And she's got quite a story.
REES: She's a 42-year-old mother of two, and when she was 38 years old, after being very ill for 10 years, she had a heart transplant. And she had hoped to use this platform to encourage and educate about organ donation and also to send a message out to organ recipients that you can still have a very full and active life. And she is a very active person, I can tell you.
: So who looks great to you, Jennie?
REES: And I actually ended up with him as my pick, thinking if you pick a favorite and they win, nobody pays attention, but if you pick a homerun horse and they win, then you ought to be able to milk that for another season here.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
: And the favorites, according to the odds makers, are Dialed In and Nero, Nero?
REES: He's a stretch runner. He's going to have to get through traffic or come extremely wide, and that can be a tough way to win the Kentucky Derby. You don't have to only be the best horse, you've got to be the luckiest horse. And if you can only be one or the other, you'd better be the luckiest, rather than actually the most talented.
: Jennie, I can hear one of today's races going on behind you. As long as you've done this, as long as you've covered the Derby, 26 years, is it still a thrill for you?
REES: But it's still going to be a great race. It's going to be the most heavily bet- on race of the year. I'm really looking forward. I think after a month of rain, we're finally going to get some sunshine. And there won't be a dry eye in the joint when they start singing "My Old Kentucky Home."
: Okay, Jennie Rees will be at Churchill Downs covering the Kentucky Derby tomorrow for the Louisville Courier-Journal. Jennie, thanks so much. Have a great time.
REES: Thank you, Melissa.
: And in case you're wondering, there are no fillies in this year's Derby. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.