The Odd Couple - by Dan Liebman

Personality-wise, Jimmy Jerkens and Julio Canani have little in common. But this week the two trainers have one important thing in common: Each has a Derby horse in his barn.

Thousands of races will be run at racetracks throughout the land over the next two months, but most of our attention will be focused on the preps that lead to Louisville, Ky., for the May 2 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).

There are races worth more money than the Derby. There are races some believe are more prestigious. Maybe races more meaningful when it comes to predicting success in the breeding shed. But there is no race worth more glory, no race a trainer would rather have on his resumé, and perhaps, no race harder to win.

Getting a 3-year-old ready to run 10 furlongs the first Saturday in May is a training feat. A feat that is noticed.

Derby wins by Unbridled and Street Sense ensured Carl Nafzger’s entry into racing’s Hall of Fame last year, and Derby victories by Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and War Emblem will pave the way for Bob Baffert’s probable induction (voting is ongoing) in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., this August.

Jimmy Jerkens knows about the Hall of Fame, since his father, Allen, was inducted in 1975. At the time, Jimmy Jerkens was all of 16 years old. Just two years later, he would join his father’s staff and for the next 20 years would work as the assistant to the legendary figure long called “The Chief,” and, because of his many big upsets, “The Giant Killer.”

To date, Jimmy Jerkens’ biggest win on the national stage came in 2005, when he saddled Artie Schiller to win the NetJets Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr. IT). In 2007 he sent out Corinthian to win the Met Mile (gr. I) over Political Force, trained by his father. Corinthian also won the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.

Seven years before Allen Jerkens went into the Hall of Fame, and nearly 30 years prior to Jimmy Jerkens going out on his own, Julio Canani took out his training license in 1968. Now 70, Canani left his native Peru for Southern California as a 16-year-old fleeing political unrest. He began walking hots and learned to train from the bottom up. On the date of his 50th birthday, Nov. 13, 1988, Canani won his first grade I race, the Hollywood Derby, with Silver Circus.

Since that time, Canani has trained 13 additional grade I winners, three of them taking Breeders’ Cup races: Silic in the 1999 Mile; Val Royal in the 2001 Mile; and champion Sweet Catomine in the 2004 Juvenile Fillies (gr. I).

Jimmy Jerkens is two-for-four in Breeders’ Cup races and Julio Canani is three for 14, both strong strike rates. But the two have something else in common—neither
has started a horse in the Kentucky Derby.

That may be about to change.

On Feb. 28, Jerkens, an East Coast trainer based in New York, sent out Edward Evans’ homebred Quality Road to win the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) in just his third career start. Across the country, Canani saddled The Pamplemousse for his second straight grade III win in the Sham Stakes for the partnership of Alex Solis II, Jeffrey and Bill Strauss, Tom Lenner, Tom Murray, Jess Ravich, Chuck Winner, and David Bienstock.

Each year at this time, owners and trainers get Derby fever. A horse is only 3 once, after all.

Much can go wrong in the next nine weeks, but based on Quality Road’s 4 1⁄4-length win and The Pamplemousse’s six-length score, two trainers with different backgrounds may be spending some time in Kentucky this spring.

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