02/19/2009 12:00AM

At 75, a shot at the Derby

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Stephanie Van Minos/Tom Cooley
Owner and trainer Tom McCarthy grooms Sam Davis winner General Quarters on Wednesday at Tampa Bay Downs.

It took more than 45 years to make Tom McCarthy an overnight sensation. Now semi-retired from a life spent first as a trainer, then in public education, McCarthy has hit the jackpot with General Quarters, who scored an upset win last week in the Sam Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. On a Derby Watch list that includes such prominent names as Bob Baffert and Bobby Frankel, Larry Jones and John Ward, Rick Dutrow, Barclay Tagg, and Steve Asmussen, McCarthy finds himself right there with his horse.

His one and only horse.

"I don't care if you're 25 or 75," said McCarthy, who is 75, "the thrill is still there. Every trainer in America, all they want to do is get to the Derby. It's a special race."

Especially for someone who never has come close before, and, odds are, won't again. McCarthy lives in Louisville, Ky., where he retired in 1990 as a high school principal. Prior to that, though, he trained, mostly in Chicago, before marriage and children forced a more stable lifestyle. He settled in Louisville, operated a small farm while teaching, and dealt with the kind of nondescript horses that fill tracks nationwide every day.

Not until Saturday - not when he was training full time or dabbling part time - had he ever won a stakes race.

"I only take on what I can do myself," McCarthy said in a telephone interview from Florida. "I've kept my hand in it all the time. I wouldn't know what to do with myself if I didn't have a horse. I'm a young 75. I keep active. I spend a lot of time with him."

McCarthy trains what he owns. General Quarters has made his three starts this winter at Tampa listed as being trained by Mark Miller, but that was done while McCarthy recovered, first in Kentucky, from surgery for skin cancers on his face. McCarthy said he will once again be listed as the trainer the next time General Quarters runs.

"He and I communicated every day," McCarthy said of Miller. "He's a fine young man, very honest, very sincere."

Miller, 54, is another small-time trainer. He has just three horses. He and McCarthy met in Louisville at the Trackside training facility, where they would help one another in the mornings. When McCarthy could not get to Tampa at the start of the winter, he asked Miller for assistance.

"I do it all myself. I want it that way," Miller said in a phone interview. "I'm very hands-on. I had the horse for six weeks before Mr. McCarthy was able to get here. He's an awesome horse. I hope he goes a long ways. I love him."

Miller, a native of Louisville, has been on and off the racetrack since 1977. He attended college at Morehead State, the alma mater of Phil Simms, the quarterback turned CBS football analyst.

"I knew since I was 10 years old that this is what I wanted to do with my life," Miller said. "It's a tough life. I've left, done some bartending, raised a family, and come back. How many people get up every morning and get to do what they love? I'm up at 4, at the barn at 5. There's a lot of ups and downs, but I love it."

Of Miller's three remaining horses, the best, Noroamin, 3, is a $500 purchase who defeated $16,000 maiden claimers at Calder.

"I have gotten calls to train other horses because of General Quarters," Miller said. "He was a huge benefit."

McCarthy's association with General Quarters began at the 2007 Keeneland September yearling sale. There were two colts he liked at the sale that he thought he could afford, both by the sire Sky Mesa. The first one into the ring, out of an Unbridled's Song mare, "had a funny way of going in his right front," McCarthy said. He decided to pass on the first colt, who sold for $20,000, and await the second colt.

But the second colt "went out of my price range," McCarthy said. He left empty-handed.

Last May at Churchill Downs, McCarthy noticed in the entries a pedigree that looked familiar, that of the first colt.

"I knew right away it was him," McCarthy said.

Now named General Quarters, the gray colt was entered in a $20,000 maiden-claiming race for 2-year-olds.

"He had a couple of nice breezes at Keeneland showing in his past performances," McCarthy said.

Having saved months of training bills and able to get him for the same price for which he sold as a yearling, McCarthy decided to try and claim General Quarters.

So did three others. But McCarthy won the shake, taking home a colt who won that debut race by a neck for trainer Wesley Ward.

After being overmatched in a stakes race in his second start, General Quarters got a three-month rest. Since returning in October, he has been busy, racing seven times. The Sam Davis was his second win, and he was second in two stakes at Tampa earlier this winter. Not bad for a horse his owner first passed on, then serendipitously acquired.

"He toes in just a hair," McCarthy said. "He was born with it. But it's never bothered him. He looks funny when he walks, but not when he runs or gallops."

In other Derby developments:

* Stardom Bound will run against fillies at least once more. She will make her next start in the Grade 1, $300,000 Santa Anita Oaks on March 7, trainer Bobby Frankel said Wednesday.

* The Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn on March 14 has been ruled out for I Want Revenge, according to owner David Lanzman, who said I Want Revenge will make his next start in either the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita on Feb. 28 or the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct on March 7.

* Flying Pegasus is going to remain at Fair Grounds for the Louisiana Derby on March 14, rather than travel to Oaklawn for the Rebel, trainer Ralph Nicks said. Flying Pegasus was ridden in his last start by Robby Albarado, who has the option of riding Patena in the Louisiana Derby. If both horses go in that race, as expected, a choice mount will come open on whomever Albarado abandons.

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WHO'S HOT

Desert Party, who won the United Arab Emirates 2000 Guineas last week, and General Quarters, who scored an upset victory in the Sam Davis Stakes on Saturday, are the two newcomers to the Derby Watch top 20. Desert Party gives Godolphin Racing three horses on the list, along with Midshipman and Vineyard Haven. Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper, pegged Desert Party at 15-1. General Quarters is 50-1 on Watchmaker's line. Old Fashioned, Watchmaker's 6-1 favorite last week, was lowered to 5-1 following his win Monday in the Southwest Stakes.

WHO'S NOT

To make room for the two newcomers, both Haynesfield and Silver City were dropped, even though both did nothing really wrong last week. Haynesfield didn't even race, and Silver City was second to Old Fashioned in the Southwest. But the two newcomers were adjudged by the Derby Watch overlords to be better prospects for the Derby's 1 1/4 miles at this stage. Vineyard Haven's price was jumped by Watchmaker to 20-1 from last week's 10-1, following his loss in the UAE 2000 Guineas.

ON THE BUBBLE

Chocolate Candy, who won the El Camino Real Derby last Saturday, just missed making the cut for the second straight week. Like first runner-up in the Miss America pageant, he's just waiting in the wings for someone to stumble or be exposed.

- Jay Privman