Avery Pettway freely admits that her uncle Elliott Walden probably never believed he'd have to make good on his promise to take her to today's 138th Kentucky Derby if Gemologist made the field.
After all, as the CEO of WinStar Farm, Walden has seen a Derby winner up close and personal, the farm's Super Saver running away with the roses just two years ago.
Beyond that, while working in WinStar's training barn last summer, even Pettway came to view the big bay colt as possibly being both too "stocky" and way "too sweet" to successfully battle the rest of the 20 thoroughbreds that will break from Churchill Downs' starting gates at 6:24 p.m. today for the most famous two minutes in sports.
"We all knew he was a good horse," said Pettway, a lifelong resident of Lookout Mountain, Ga., who graduated from Baylor School in 2010 and just completed her sophomore year at Virginia.
"But I'm not sure how many thought he had a great chance to reach the Derby."
But then the horse won his first race last fall. Then his second. And his third. And his fourth, and, finally, most impressively, the Wood Memorial on April 7.
From her dorm room at Texas Christian, Walden's daughter Emily called Avery at Virginia.
"I think you're going to the Derby," she told her cousin.
And that's just what Pettway did Friday afternoon after completing her spring final in "The Biblical Job," her fifth and final final of what she described as "a crazy week."
A little after 1 p.m., she climbed into her F-150 Ford pickup, cranked up Kenny Chesney's "Summertime" that her father Daniel had just sent her and began the eight-hour drive from Charlottesville, Va., to Louisville, Ky.
"I've never been to the Derby before," she said. "When Super Saver won, we were watching it on television and we were all screaming at the top of our lungs for at least an hour. If Gemologist wins, I can't imagine how wild it will be."
But can this lightly raced 3-year-old -- despite being undefeated -- win this Derby against a field that four-time Derby-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas has labeled "the best bunch I've seen in a long time"?
Walden likes his chances.
"Gemologist is a very big horse, but he shows speed, and that's a bit unique," he said earlier this week. "That speaks to his athleticism. I don't think he's the type of horse that has to have the lead."
The leaders in the pre-race betting are Bodemeister and Union Rags, whom even Walden admits "Is a very good horse."
But so is Gemologist, the son of Tiznow, a two-time Breeder's Cup Classic winner. Nearly 17 hands high and carrying 1,300 pounds, he's got the kind of power that usually runs well over the mile-and-quarter Derby track, which is longer than any horse in the field has run to this point.
Beyond that, he's spent most of his recent training time in Florida, where the weather already has acclimated him to this year's unseasonably warm Derby forecast.
"Given the distance," Walden said, "[the heat] will definitely impact the race. There will be some horses who won't show up."
But Pettway couldn't wait to show up late Friday night, go shopping with her cousin Emily for the "perfect Derby hat" this morning, then head to Churchill Downs for the most famous horse race of them all.
Yet the cousins were never drawn to Gemologist because of his talent.
"He was the only one you could pet on his head and not risk getting bit," she said with a laugh.
A lot has taken a bite out of the popularity of horse racing the past 20 years. The sport hasn't had a Triple Crown winner -- the Derby, Preakness and Belmont -- since Affirmed in 1978. Gambling is no longer confined to a few casinos in Las Vegas and New Jersey and the racetrack. The sad demise of 2006 Derby winner Barbaro because of on-track injuries turned off others.
Then there is the current debate over whether or not horses should run on the drug Lasix -- as all the Derby entrants are expected to do -- to prevent bleeding through the nose.
Asked the first thing he thinks might help re-energize the public, Walden said, "Banning medications on race day. It's not going to fix all our problems, but it might help. As much as anything, we've got to focus more on fundamentals."
But the industry's most fundamental truth is that nothing is as big as the first Saturday in May beneath Churchill Downs' twin spires.
Said Walden: "At this point, I feel as good about Gemologist as I did about Super Saver."
There could certainly never be a better time for a sweet, stocky colt to begin to save horse racing.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com or 423-757-6273.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...
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