The greatest two minutes in sports actually spans three years, and the running starts long before the first Saturday in May.

Hardboot horsefolk know this all too well, but the rest of us are allowed to dive into the timeline whenever we please. If you’re serious about picking this year’s Kentucky Derby winner, right now – today – is a fine time take the plunge.

Because the real running starts tomorrow.

Two major Derby prep races, the Fountain of Youth and the Risen Star, will be contested Saturday at Gulfstream Park and Fair Grounds Race Course, respectively. It’s the perfect time to look in.

Jill Byrne can tell you what to look for.

Churchill Downs’ official handicapper is a shrewd judge of horseflesh. Her father, Peter Howe, and her ex-husband, Patrick Byrne, trained multiple Eclipse Award winners. Jill competed as a rider in hunter-jumper events and assisted in the training of such champions as Favorite Trick and Awesome Again.

Byrne made a name for herself among hardcore handicappers at the 2001 Derby, when she threw out the heavy favorite, Point Given, and picked Monarchos at 10-1.

Last year’s pick: I’ll Have Another, which won at 15-1.

Byrne uses speed figures and class evaluation, but her bedrock approach is best described by an old racetrack saying:

It’s not how fast they run, it’s how they run fast.

All 25 young horses entered in the two big races tomorrow have fallen under Byrne’s gaze since they started racing last year. She will be searching for signs of progress.

“I want to see if their racing talent is improving and if they are maturing physically,” Byrne said. “I want to see that they are going forward in the right way.”

The winter prep races are more important than ever this year. Churchill Downs is now using a points system to determine the Derby field. Insiders think it will take about 60 points to make the starting gate.

The Fountain of Youth and Risen Star are the first of eight races worth 50 points to the winner. The big-money April preps, such as the Santa Anita Derby and the Blue Grass Stakes, are worth 100 points.

Churchill Down’s Jill Byrne made a name for herself by passing on favorites like 2001’s Point Given, who she saw had already run his best race, and finding undervalued prospects like that year’s winner, Monarchos.

Unlike years past, when the field was determined by graded stakes earnings, excelling in 2-year-old stakes means next to nothing. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, which generally decides the 2-year-old champion, is now worth a paltry 10 points.

Churchill wants the Derby packed with horses that are good this year, not last year. And pure sprinters need not apply. No points are awarded in races shorter than a mile.

The new system is controversial but sensible. The Derby field won’t contain a handful of has-beens anymore. The Derby pace will no longer be goosed by speedsters who need a Sallee van to finish the 1 ¼-mile race.

In other words, Derby 139 will be harder than ever to handicap. All 20 entrants will have good recent form and will have shown they own a decent dose of stamina. Short-winded horses seldom hit the board in races longer than a mile.

It could take some serious hair-splitting to separate contenders from pretenders as the Derby draws near. Studying past performances and race replays probably won’t suffice. Smart bettors will listen to sharpies like Byrne who own the keen eye and experience required to discern which colts are thriving and which ones aren’t.

Derby horses start shipping into Churchill about two weeks before the race.

“That’s when it’s really, really important to watch the horses from day to day,” Byrne said. “Who’s handing the atmosphere here at Churchill in the mornings? Who’s handling the track? Who’s losing their condition or losing weight?

“Some horses may have already peaked. I also look for the one who has really started to blossom and come to life.”

Super Saver was a good example. The 2010 Derby winner was mostly an afterthought in the run-up to the race. He had failed to win either of his starts at age 3, and was overshadowed by more accomplished stablemates, Eskendereya, Rule and Devil May Care.

“Super Saver was training really well but not getting a lot of attention,” said Byrne, who doubles as director of on-air communications for Churchill Downs. “I picked him third and said he was training better than any of (trainer) Todd Pletcher’s other horses.”

That’s for sure. Rule was ruled out on Monday of Derby week because Pletcher didn’t like the way he was working. Eskendereya, the likely favorite, was withdrawn the day before due to a leg injury.

No money was squandered on those two colts, but that wasn’t the case with Point Given, the 9-5 favorite in 2001.

The copper-colored brute came to Louisville off an electrifying romp in the Santa Anita Derby that earned a smoking Beyer Speed Figure of 110. He backed it up by blistering Churchill’s oval in his morning works.

Visions of a Triple Crown winner danced in turfwriters’ heads. Byrne begged to differ.

“I didn’t like the way he was training,” she said. “He was working very quickly … but to me, every time he worked he was being asked for everything he had, giving 110 percent. He had nothing left.

“I said he was over the top; he had already run his best race. People thought I was crazy.”

Byrne sided with Monarchos, a gray colt who was largely ignored because of his most recent race (a well-beaten second in the Wood Memorial) and his morning works (slow).

The clock didn’t concern Byrne. She saw a horse that “got over the ground smoothly and did everything with ease.” She saw a trainer, John Ward, who wasn’t squeezing the lemon dry.

“(Picking Monarchos) made a lot of the handicappers in the business stand up and take notice of my ability,” Byrne said.

Few things help a bettor more than being able to confidently toss a false favorite. Two years ago that horse was Dialed In. His morning outings looked like Monarchos in reverse.

“He wasn’t moving well,” Byrne said. “He just never looked comfortable.”

The eyeball test isn’t foolproof, however. Byrne cites 2009 Derby winner Mine That Bird, a 50-1 shot, as a horse that looked like Mr. Ed in the morning but ran like Secretariat on Saturday afternoon. Daddy Nose Best, on the other hand, was a morning glory last year but finished a dull 10th on D-Day.

Confusing, isn’t it?

I can vouch from hard experience for the folly and beauty of taking expert advice.

In 2001, a prominent trainer told a friend on the QT that Monarchos wasn’t handling the Churchill dirt well at all. Heeding that dunderheaded observation cost me, my pal and three other guys a $63,000 superfecta.

Ten years later, glowing reports from ace clocker Bruno DeJulio bolstered my crush on Animal Kingdom. I keyed the critter at 21-1 and took a nice bite out of the exotics pools.

I’ve learned two important lessons about using inside information in the Derby. No. 1, clockers are more reliable than trainers. They are unbiased and they closely watch all the horses, not just their own.

I heartily recommend DeJulio’s reports, available online. They aren’t cheap, but if you’re serious about hitting the Derby and Oaks, they are worth it. Mike Welsch of the Daily Racing Form is also a sharp observer of morning works, and the Form only costs $5.

No. 2, it’s your money. Bet your own picks. Don’t let anyone talk you off a horse you really like, or put you onto a horse you hate. Expert commentary is a guide, not a grail.

Byrne is a clocker without a stopwatch. Her observations reflect a lifetime of working with and around high-class thoroughbreds. You can get her take by watching HRTV, the “Pursuit of the Crown” program in particular.

Here are Byrne’s thoughts on eight top contenders – at this point anyway. The picture starts coming into sharper focus starting tomorrow.

Violence, the Fountain of Youth favorite, is No. 1 in Byrne’s latest rankings. She likes his high cruising speed, professionalism and versatility.

“He’s handled synthetic, dirt, being on the lead and coming from off the pace. He can rate but still has natural speed. He can run fast early and still finish up.”

Revolutionary won the Withers Stakes on Feb. 2. The time was slow and the competition was dubious, but the son of 2009 juvenile champion War Pass impressively overcame traffic problems that would shame Spaghetti Junction.

“He had every opportunity to say, ‘I’m done. I’m tired of getting snatched around and shut off and getting dirt kicked in my face.’ But he kept running on and finished very strongly. … He’s got that really rare, raw talent. Now it’s just a matter of putting it all together mentally.”

Normandy Invasion opened eyes with a furious rally that fell just short in the Remsen last year. Like Violence and Revolutionary, Byrne believes the Risen Star favorite has yet to run his best race.

“He has the pedigree to improve as he gets older, and he’s proven against quality competition. He falls into the category of having the highest possibility to move forward.”

Oxbow boasts some serious connections. He was sired by 1998 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Awesome Again and is trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas.

Jockey Jon Court steered Oxbow to a win in the Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds last month, but Byrne says the Risen Star poses a sterner test.

“I need to see him put good races back to back. It will be interesting to see how they elect to ride him. The Jon Court/Lukas style tends to be gun and go. I’d like to see him rate a little bit.”

Byrne is ambivalent about Shanghai Bobby, the reigning 2-year-old champ, and two other multiple stakes winners, Itsmyluckyday and Goldencents, partly owned by Rick Pitino. All three rank in Byrne’s top 10, but she suspects they are running out of room to improve.

“We’ve probably seen their best, and their best is good. It might be good enough to win. But do I see them making a big move forward? No.”

Shanghai Bobby has Louisville connections through owners Jack Wolf and the father-son team of Ed and Clinton Glasscock. Byrne is a big admirer but thinks the son of Harlan’s Holiday, who placed seventh in the 2002 Derby, is genetically inclined to succeed at a mile, not a 1 ¼ mi.

“He’s a big, strong, powerful horse. There’s no quit in him. His best may be good enough if others don’t maintain (form) or move forward.”

Last but definitely not least is Verrazano, who Byrne compares to last year’s runner-up, Bodemeister. Both are relatively late bloomers who set the sport abuzz with scorching speed figs.

Verrazano demolished maiden and allowance fields in his first two starts, but Byrne wants to see how he fares against top competition. She’s not alone. The first test looms March 9 in the Tampa Bay Derby.

“Does he have the raw talent, the pedigree, the connections and the looks to be a superstar? Absolutely. But he’s got a lot to prove. I want to see him get into a situation where he doesn’t have everything his own way.”

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Mark Coomes
Mark Coomes covered sports and a dilettantish mix of other topics great and small in 20 years at The Courier-Journal, The (Monroe, La.) News-Star, USA Today, Florida Today and The Cats' Pause.

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