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Traffic can be tough at Churchill Downs

Traffic isn't good for anyone.

It causes delays, heightened emotions and bad decisions. In worst-case scenarios, it can cause breakdowns and accidents.

The same holds true for racehorses. Too many other horses in the same area on a racetrack can fray a champion thoroughbred's nerves, causing it to run at less than its optimum level -- or lose its composure completely."

That's one of the challenges faced by horses -- and jockeys and trainers -- in the Kentucky Derby, the first leg of the Triple Crown series for 3-year-olds that airs Saturday, on NBC from Churchill Downs in Louisville. The field for this prestigious 1 1/4 -mile Grade I race can run as high as 20, which can mean that a high-strung animal may not ever make it out of the gate.

Worse, there is no way to get a horse ready for such conditions, says Tom Hammond, the host for NBC's telecast on Saturday.

"There's no way, of course, to prepare them for 150,000 (people). It's kind of the horse's temperament that has to come through," he says. "But they will school them, try to get them as familiar as they can with the routine and the surroundings, so that perhaps they can take it in stride. Some do and some don't. Some get so nervous and upset that they lose the race in the paddock."

Which is one reason why, as Hammond says, trainers often opt for jockeys with Derby experience.

"What trainers say is you have to get a jockey that has experience in the Derby because the nerves do get to jockeys, too. Bob Baffert is fond of saying that even the best jockeys in the world go crazy at the Derby. They just completely lose all their poise. It's a great thing to have somebody who's been there many times before.

"One of the reasons it's so tough to win the Triple Crown is with so many horses in the Derby, quite often the best horse -- the one who proves to be the best horse over time -- does not win the Derby."

At this writing, trainer Nick Zito appeared to be holding all the cards -- or at least five of them -- for this year's Triple Crown: Bellamy Road, who won the Wood Memorial in impressive fashion last month; High Fly and Noble Causeway, the winner and runner-up, respectively, of the Florida Derby; Sun King, the winner of the Tampa Bay Derby; and Andromeda's Hero.