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Horse Racing Hopes for Quiet, Exciting Kentucky Derby

Larry Jones was at the chapel on the backside at Churchill Downs earlier this week when he noticed the bracelet he'd been wearing for a year in honor of fallen filly Eight Belles had vanished.

The affable trainer took the keepsake's disappearance as a sign.

"It was just like, 'It's time to get over it, let's go,' so that's what we're doing," Jones said.

The rest of the sport will be right behind him during Saturday's Kentucky Derby.

A year removed from Eight Belles' high-profile death moments after the Derby and Big Brown's controversial run at a Triple Crown put all of the industry's shortcomings — from steroids to breeding to breakdowns — into the spotlight, racing tries to move forward when 20 3-year-olds head to the post under the famed twin spires.

There are plenty of good plotlines, from Jones' return with Friesan Fire to the magical run of General Quarters, owned and trained by a former high school principal.

And while there will be plenty of excitement when the horses thunder out of the gate, the fastest two minutes in sports will also be two minutes of trepidation.

Everyone connected with "the game," from the owners to the trainers to the jockeys to the fans, knows racing can't afford another summer of discontent.

"I just want a nice, quiet Triple Crown," said Bob Baffert, who will go for his fourth Derby victory with Santa Anita Derby winner Pioneerof the Nile. "There are some good stories out there. Hopefully we'll get to showcase them."

The sport has taken considerable strides over the last 12 months to get the attention focused back on its stars, not it's troubles.

Steroids are now banned in 35 of the 38 racing states, including all three where the Triple Crown is run. A national safety alliance has been formed to make sure tracks are taking aggressive steps to protecting everyone involved.

"I think we're in a bit better shape," said trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who will saddle longshot Flying Private. "Nobody wants what happened last year to happen again."

Particularly Jones, who became a pariah for all of racing's ills when Eight Belles was euthanized on the track after breaking both of her front legs moments after finishing second to Big Brown.

This will be Jones' last Derby attempt for awhile. He plans to scale back his operation in 2010, part of a semi-retirement few think will last.

He may have his best chance to grab the blanket of roses with Friesan Fire. The Louisiana Derby winner romped in the slop at the Fair Grounds on March 14.

Jones doesn't think his colt's seven-week layoff will be a problem, and don't expect him to complain if the showers predicted for Saturday afternoon pop up moments before the Derby.

"We're not going to be doing a rain dance," he said with a wink.

Maybe he should. While there's plenty of talent out there, there's also plenty of questions.

Will synthetic surface star Pioneerof the Nile be able to handle getting dirt or mud kicked in his face for the first time? Can morning line favorite I Want Revenge and 19-year-old jockey Joe Talamo back up their remarkable last-to-first dash in the Wood Memorial? How good is Dunkirk, who will try to become the first horse in more than 125 years to win the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old?

"It's all about the horse," said Todd Pletcher, who hopes Dunkirk can snap his record 0-for-21 run in the Derby. "I think he's the best I've brought here."

Then again, he was supposed to be. Dunkirk was purchased for a whopping $3.7 million as a yearling. General Quarters and trainer Tom McCarthy come from more modest stock. The former biology teacher and principal got the gray colt for a measly $20,000.

The return on his investment has been priceless.

General Quarters launched himself into the Derby picture with an impressive win in the Blue Grass Stakes last month, giving McCarthy his first Derby start after 50 years of waiting.

"This is my dream," McCarthy said. "Whatever happens, this has been a special ride for me."

It's a vision Baffert knows only too well.

"Down deep we all believe we have a chance to win," Baffert said. "We're dreaming in Technicolor, but when that gate comes open, it all becomes black and white."

Until then, there are plenty of shades of gray, most of them involving how synthetic runners like Pioneerof the Nile will fare when they get a little dirty.

The transition from synthetics to dirt has been a hot-button issue over the last few years. It's one trainer Eoin Harty is tired of talking about.

Harty, trainer of Mr. Hot Stuff, pointed to the success of California transplants I Want Revenge and Arkansas Derby winner Papa Clem as evidence that all the talk about synthetics is worth about as much as a busted exacta ticket.

"It's a moot point," Harty said. "I think what the California horses have done elsewhere kind of puts that to bed."

Trainer Nick Zito, a late addition to the field with longshot Nowhere to Hide, hopes the sport buries last year's woes with an exciting and injury-free race.

"It would be a good story if (whoever wins) goes into the winner's circle and preaches the good of the sport," Zito said. "I would like to see something nice happen and something nice might happen."

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