Although I have covered my last Kentucky Derby and very well may have gazed upon the Twin Spires for the final time, the Run for the Roses still encompasses a great deal of my life through the Derby Dozen, which is rapidly approaching.
Gone are the 4:30 wake-up calls and prowling the Churchill backstretch at 5:15. Gone are the drives through the infield tunnel to the grandstand to catch morning works or chasing after trainers for interesting sound bites and gems of wisdom or seeing most of the Derby Dozen horses in the flesh for the first time and learning about their personalities. One of the most fascinating aspects of covering the Derby was seeing which horses were improving physically during Derby Week and which ones looked to be ready to peak on Derby Day. If you listened to their trainers, there would be 20 horses ready to run the race of their life.
I have had many behind-the-scenes backstretch memories during my years covering the Derby for Daily Racing Form and then Blood-Horse. Sometimes you’re just fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time and are able to uncover nuggets of color that enhance the experience and narrative of the event.
When it came to the big 3,500-word recap, which was due the following afternoon, and sorting through the morass of notes and quotes compiled during the months leading up to the Derby and Derby Week itself, I can only quote Dorothy Parker, who said, “I hate writing, but love having written.”
I won’t miss the pre-race anxiety of hoping you have the winner covered properly or the exhaustion of running around looking for angles and anecdotes until 10 o’clock the night of the race and then having to start sorting everything out and forming the storylines. But I will miss the final product when that last word has been typed and the story has been told in a satisfying and entertaining manner, capturing the event in its entirety, from breeding shed or sales ring to winner’s circle.
Looking through my old Derby recaps for Blood-Horse, I have compiled a series of backstretch anecdotes that I feel capture some of my most memorable behind-the-scenes moments covering the Derby.
I feel this is a good way to lead up to this year’s Derby trail and Derby Dozen and eventually my wrap-up columns following the race
Along Came Jones
On Thursday, April 22, nine days before the Derby, Smarty Jones arrived at Churchill Downs. Unlike most horses, he came charging off the van and strutted into Barn 42 as if he were announcing to all the occupants he was taking over, as he had done at the clinic the year before, arriving for his eye surgery. Several stalls down, Imperialism, racing's other Cinderella story, was calmly nibbling on hay. On the opposite side of the barn was Todd Pletcher's 12-strong legion, including Derby starters Pollard's Vision and Limehouse, and Kentucky Oaks contender Ashado.
"The big dogs are on the backside," trainer John Servis said, as he helped get Smarty Jones settled in. "But I feel like I'm coming with a loaded gun. The way he charged off that van, he knows something big is in store."
On the Saturday before the Derby, Smarty Jones went out for his final work with jockey Willie Martinez up. By the time he was finished, all of Churchill Downs knew that this was no ordinary horse. With Martinez motionless throughout, Smarty Jones breezed five furlongs in :58 as if he were out for a morning stroll. His feet barely touched the ground as he glided smoothly over the Churchill strip. He was a powerhouse galloping out, and wasn't even blowing coming off the track.
Meanwhile, trainer Bob Baffert, who had withdrawn San Felipe winner Preachinatthebar from the Derby after an unsatisfactory work, was now in danger of losing jockey Jerry Bailey, who was to ride Baffert's main Derby hope, Wimbledon, winner of the Louisiana Derby. One more withdrawal and Bailey would jump back to Eddington, who was next in line to get in the field based on graded earnings. But Baffert had just seen something to make him forget his jockey woes.
"All I know is that after watching Smarty Jones work today, we're all in trouble," Baffert said. Nick Zito, trainer of Derby starters The Cliff's Edge and Birdstone, had seen Smarty Jones gallop at Keeneland earlier in the week, and all he could say was: "Whew! I can't believe the way he attacks the ground."
After the work, Martinez, who has been a major part of the Smarty Jones team, couldn't stop raving about the colt. "When you're undefeated, you know you're the man," he said. "I've been riding for 16 years and I know the feeling when a horse's confidence level keeps rising and rising. I don't think anyone really knows how good this horse is or how good he's going to be. Right now, the Smarty Jones puzzle is coming together and people are starting to see what this horse is all about. They look at his pedigree and knock him, and he just keeps kicking butt. What else do they want him to do?"
In his gallops following the work, Smarty Jones literally dragged his 170-pound exercise rider, Pete Van Trump, around the track like a rag doll. After two days of Van Trump being forced to stand straight up in the irons, trying to rein in this rampaging bundle of power and energy, Servis finally had to gallop alongside Smarty Jones on the pony, keeping a firm hold of him. As he returned with the colt one morning, all Servis said was, "Man, I wish the Derby was tomorrow."
"I don't know how to describe him, I really don't," Van Trump said. "There's just such an adrenaline rush to be on something like that. He's so headstrong; all he wants to do is train. No matter what we do we can't get him tired."
The Chapmans (owners Pat and Roy) arrived at the barn the Thursday before the race and went over last-minute details with Servis. Their main concern was getting Roy to the winner's circle in his wheelchair. Roy, as feisty as his colt, told Servis through sandpaper-lined vocal cords, "I told them if he wins he is not going in that winner's circle until I get down there. They called me back and said, ‘We'll get you in. We don't know how but we'll get you in.’ The first time we spoke, the guy said, ‘We're going to carry you across.’ I said, ‘Let me tell you something; you ain’t carrying me across that damn track in front of 150,000 people.’”
Servis then jumped in: "Unless they carry you on their shoulders. Just watch they don't dump any Gatorade on you." Servis then had the Chapmans listen to a phone message he had received from Oaklawn president Charles Cella, who had offered a $5 million bonus to any horse who swept Oaklawn’s two big Derby preps and the Kentucky Derby. Cella told Servis, "I just want you to know I got the other half (of the bonus money) covered, so go get the money, honey!"
Heavy rains Friday into Saturday morning turned the track sloppy, but track superintendent Butch Lehr managed to get it fast after several races. A little after 9 a.m. Lion Heart arrived by van from Keeneland. Trainer Patrick Biancone had thrown down the gauntlet by selecting post 3, letting everyone know his intentions. His instructions to jockey Mike Smith were short and simple: "Come back with your silks clean."
At 4 p.m. a thunderstorm of biblical proportions swept through Louisville, quickly turning the track sloppy again. As the rain whipped through Barn 42, flooding the entrance, both Servis and Mulhall welcomed the prospect of a sloppy track. Smarty Jones and Imperialism never turned a hair as loud claps of thunder rocked the barn.
Smarty Jones then went out and rocked the Downs, beginning one of the most remarkable Triple Crown runs in history, during which he captured the hearts of the entire nation and became a hero to the city of Philadelphia.
Lukas’s Charismatic Derby Winner
Each afternoon at 3 o’clock on the Churchill backstretch, D. Wayne Lukas would take Charismatic to a small grassy area outside his barn, near the gap to the track, and graze the colt. And each day he could see him blossom and get stronger. One afternoon in particular, Charismatic grazed contentedly, searching out dandelions and ripping them out by the root, as the sun illuminated his chestnut coat, emphasizing his powerful muscle lines.
“Would you believe this horse just ran and almost broke the track record?” Lukas asked, as he rubbed his hand against the colt’s neck down to his shoulder. “Look at him; there are no stress lines at all. He carries his weight like Secretariat. I guarantee you if he were to win this thing, and I know he’s probably nobody’s pick, watch out in the next two, because he’s one of those horses who will come back in the Preakness with a vengeance.”
With Lukas’ confidence running high, he wasn’t about to back down from his nemesis Ronnie Ebanks, agent for Vicar’s jockey, Shane Sellers. Ebanks knew how to push Lukas’s buttons and knew the trainer would never turn his back on a wager if you challenged him. Vicar had won the Florida Derby and was one of the most consistent 3-year-olds in the country. By the time Ebanks was through getting Lukas’s goat by knocking Charismatic, he had coaxed Lukas into a $2,000 bet, Vicar vs. Charismatic, horse for horse.
The following morning, Ebanks stopped by Lukas’ barn to remind him of the sucker bet he had made.
“I’m sure you came to your senses this morning and realize you’re in a financially bad situation,” Ebanks said to Lukas.
“No, no,” Lukas replied. “I don’t catch a soft touch like you every day.”
Ebanks was not about to let up. “I led you right into my trap,” he said. “I got you fired up, and I know if you get fired up, that’s the best time to get you in a bad bet. Let’s get it straight. We’ve got a $2,000 bet, horse for horse, whoever finishes in front of the other. Vicar against…how do you say your horse’s name?”
“Don’t worry,” Lukas shot back. “It’ll be a household name by Saturday night.”
The Wednesday before the Derby, Lukas’s training chores had just ended when Louisville veterinarian Kurt Oliver and his 12-year-old daughter, Libby, paid him a visit.
“Libby thinks Wayne hung the moon and swung the stars, “Oliver said.
Libby had a knack for finding four-leaf clovers and immediately went searching for one behind Lukas’s barn. A few minutes later she came running back clutching one and handed it to Lukas. All she said was, “Good luck.”
Lukas, amazed at the find, tucked it away in his wallet. Just before bringing Charismatic and Cat Thief over for the Derby, Lukas received a visit from Overbrook Farm yearling manager Bruce Jenson, his wife Nancy, and their 9-year-old daughter Kenzie. In 1995, Kenzie, suffering from leukemia, had undergone a bone marrow transplant, spending two months in the hospital.
Before going to watch the race, Kenzie asked Lukas if there was something she could take with her and hold during the race to bring him good luck. He reached into his wallet and took out the four-leaf clover. He wrapped it in paper and stapled the ends, then gave it to Kenzie, who held it all during the race.
Charismatic, with Antley giving him a flawless ride, charged to victory over Menifee and Cat Thief at odds of 31-1.
Following the race, Kenzie returned to the barn, still clutching the four-leaf clover. Kurt Oliver went over to her, kneeled down, and said, “You hang on to that and kiss it every night. Libby is 12, but she’s the luckiest person I’ve ever seen.”
Lukas, who had been elected to the Hall of Fame several days earlier, then autographed the paper containing the four-leaf clover and presented Kenzie with a rose from the victory blanket.
Nancy Jenson said, “I’m just so glad Kenzie is here to see this. Imagine, one little girl picks up a four-leaf clover and passes it on, and another little girl carries it on over. For Wayne to go out and win the Derby and also finish third is very special.”
The Horse Who Put TVG on the Map
TVG was less than a year old and still trying to find its audience when they set up shop at Churchill Downs well in advance of Derby 2000 to begin a new feature called “The Works,” in which they would show all the workouts and many of the gallops of the Derby horses, enabling racing fans for the first time to actually witness Derby horses training, with an on-air crew consisting of Frank Lyons, Gary Mandella, and Caton Bredar analyzing the works.
It was a great new concept, but it took one incident for it to gain major popularity and have fans and horsemen talking and eventually glued to their TVs every morning.
A little over a week before the Derby. in the early morning darkness, with no camera crews out and about yet and with only TVG’s camera capturing the moment, the unpredictable Derby favorite Fusaichi Pegasus, who definitely had a mind of his own, decided out of nowhere to rear up walking back from a gallop with exercise rider Nuno Santos aboard.
Instead of coming down on all fours as any horse would do after rearing, Fusaichi Pegasus went straight down on his rear end and basically was sitting on the racetrack in an upright position. With no way of staying on the horse, Santos literally slid off the colt’s back.
Now, riderless, Fusaichi Pegasus scrambled to his feet, and before he even had a chance to think about running off, trainer Neil Drysdale raced onto the track and grabbed hold of the horse, holding on for dear life while trying to calm down his temperamental colt.
And it was all captured by TVG and only TVG. TV stations from all over approached TVG to get permission to use their footage, which was shown all over the country. TVG and The Works had quickly come of age, with the latter becoming must-see TV every morning, especially on the backstretch.
Drysdale decided to switch exercise riders and get someone he was familiar with, who had helped tame some of the trainer’s problem horses in the past and who had worked Fusaichi Pegasus prior to the Wood Memorial. That person was Andy Durnin, Drysdale’s troubleshooter who was only at Churchill Downs because he was working Woodford Reserve Turf Classic hopeful Manndar for trainer Beau Greely.
As for Santos, he would go on to become regular exercise rider for two Horses of the Year – Ghostzapper and Azeri.
For Durnin, this Derby was a dream come true, as Manndar won the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic and Fusaichi Pegasus became the first favorite to win the Kentucky Derby since Spectacular Bid in 1979.
Walking on the track back to the test barn with Fusaichi Pegasus, an elated Durnin waved to the cheering crowd. The cheers were so loud, Durnin could barely hear his cell phone faintly ringing through the roar of the crowd. On the other end was his close friend Craig Quinn calling from South Carolina to congratulate him.
“How are you my brother?” Durnin asked in his distinct Irish accent. “I’m just walking back to the stables with the Kentucky Derby winner. How about that? Did you see Manndar win the race before? He’s the only reason I’m even here. This is the best day of my life.”
It may have been TVG’s best day as well.
Shades of Brown
When I think of trainer Rick Dutrow, who is currently serving a 10-year ban, it’s hard not to see the person who returned to his barn following Big Brown’s victory in the Kentucky Derby and headed straight to the colt’s stall.
“Where is he?” Dutrow asked rhetorically, as if about to greet a long lost friend. “You are the freakin’ man,” he said to Big Brown as he entered the stall. He gave the colt about a dozen affectionate smacks on the neck and then wrapped his arms tightly around his neck for about 30 seconds, as if unable or unwilling to let go. Big Brown never moved as he rested his head on Dutrow’s shoulder.
This was the Rick Dutrow people never got a chance to see, the Rick Dutrow who easily becomes humbled by the equine gifts that have been bestowed upon him.
When Dutrow finally did let go, he noticed something he had never seen before from Big Brown.
“He’s tired,” Dutrow said incredulously. “Look at my boy.” Then directing his attention to the horse, he said, “I finally got you. I finally got you tired. Look at my little buddy. You kicked their ass, Brown.”
Paul and The Walk
Paul Reddam stood outside Barn 3 shortly before the announcement to bring the horses to the paddock for the 138th Kentucky Derby. Dressed in a white shirt and purple tie, the colors of his silks, Reddam appeared relaxed and confident, believing his colt, I’ll Have another, was ready to prove to the world what he already knew; that this was an exceptional colt.
Everything had gone perfectly since the day the son of Flower Alley – Arch’s Gal Edith, by Arch returned to training this winter after being sidelined with sore shins. Trainer Doug O’Neill had done a masterful job getting the colt this far, with victories in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) and Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), and Reddam felt there was enough karma behind the story of unknown jockey Mario Gutierrez to appease the Derby gods. Not even drawing post 19, which had never produced a Derby winner, could temper his confidence.
O’Neill was his usual fun-loving self, not showing any signs that he was about to run in the most important race of his life. Even O’Neill’s brother, Dennis, who is more low-keyed and intense, was feeling good about their chances.
Team O’Neill, as they like to be called, was ready. I’ll Have Another, who had been tearing around the Churchill Downs track every morning for the past three days, was ready. And Gutierrez, who had been riding at tiny Hastings Park in British Columbia until this year and who barely knew what the Kentucky Derby was when he came to this country from Mexico in 2006, was ready. This was his time to prove to those who were convinced he would have a meltdown in the Derby that he was able to compete at the highest level on racing’s biggest stage.
It was now time for the walkover, and my colleague Lenny Shulman and I of course walked over with Paul, who was a good friend that we had been close to for several years.
“The great thing about this kid (Mario) is that they’re going to play ‘My Old Kentucky Home,’ and everyone else is going to be shaking, and he won’t even care; he’s never even heard of it.” Reddam said with that familiar grin and twinkle in his eye. “Today is Cinco de Mayo, and he’s more familiar with mariachi bands.”
As for his own nerves, he said, “I am not nervous in the slightest. I’ve been nervous before; what good does that do? I was nervous before the Santa Anita Derby, because, although I thought he was a good horse, you wonder if the Lewis was some kind of weird fluke. I felt it was legitimate, but I had to see him do it again. After he won, I knew he was the real deal, and now I really believe he’s going to run the race of his life.”
Watching the race on the rail with Lenny, it was my job to let him know what was going on and who was where, as it was pretty difficult to see from ground level and the jumbo screen in the infield wasn’t jumbo enough to make out the horses.
Down the stretch, all I knew was that Bodemeister had a big lead and looked home free. There was only one horse with a chance to catch him. Then I spotted Reddam’s white and purple silks charging at Bodemeister.
“It’s Paul!” I screamed. For the first time covering the Derby it had gotten personal. Oh well, everyone has to let down their guard once in a while.
(For my most personal moment with American Pharoah, see my Nov. 7 column http://cs.bloodhorse.com/blogs/horse-racing-steve-haskin/archive/2015/11/07/a-morning-in-the-kentucky-sun.aspx)