04/22/2009 11:00PM

Derby buzz grows as meet begins

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Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer-owner Tom McCarthy towels off General Quarters following his work Thursday at Churchill Downs.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Opening day of the Churchill Downs spring meet invariably brings inescapable reminders that the Kentucky Derby is but a week away. That's not only because of the overt clue gleaned from what is staged late that afternoon - the Derby Trial - but also because of what usually transpires earlier that morning.

True to form, a slew of final prerace workouts for Derby 135 are scheduled for an eventful Saturday morning, just a few hours before Churchill opens for its 52-day spring meet.

Papa Clem, Musket Man, Desert Party, Regal Ransom, and West Side Bernie all are tentatively set to breeze on what is being forecast as a warm morning at Churchill. Even late into the Saturday card, as temperatures reach the mid-80s, the grandstand buzz still could be centered as much on the morning works as the afternoon races, one of the many curiosities that characterize the momentous buildup to the Derby every year.

The Grade 3 Derby Trial, as usual, will have little to do with its namesake, having long ago become an anachronism. Four years ago, Don't Get Mad ran back seven days after romping in the Trial to be a decent fourth behind Giacomo in the Derby, but the most recent one-week wheel-back that yielded the ultimate success in the Derby came 35 years ago, in 1974, when Cannonade won what was called the Stepping Stone purse at Churchill before capturing the 100th Derby.

Silver City, with Julien Leparoux to ride, is the probable favorite for the $100,000 Derby Trial. On its own merits, the 7 1/2-furlong race is a good one as all eight starters own respectable form; the disconnect with the Derby, however, is obvious, as none are expected back a week later.

The Trial kicks off a top-heavy meet that starts with 14 Derby Week stakes. Besides the May 2 Derby, other Grade 1 races to be run this week are the Kentucky Oaks on Friday, and the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic and Humana Distaff on the Derby undercard.

After the Derby, the meet highlight will be the Grade 1, $750,000 Stephen Foster Handicap on June 13, with an intriguing new twist planned for the weeks that follow. For the first time ever, Churchill will stage night racing by using banks of temporary lighting, with the programs of Juneo19, June 26, and July 2 set to run from 6 p.m. until nearly 11 p.m. Eastern.

All that can wait for later. Among the more current events is the customary logjam at the bottom of the graded-earnings list that governs eligibility to make the 20-horse cutoff for the Derby. As of Thursday afternoon, Summer Bird was the 20th horse on the list, with Join in the Dance, Take the Points, and Atomic Rain next up, in that order.

The only Derby workout to take place Thursday morning was by General Quarters, the colt whose Cinderella story has been attracting an extraordinary amount of attention, even before the usual Derby Week media onslaught has begun. With regular exercise rider Julie Sheets up, General Quarters breezed five furlongs over a fast track in 1:01.80, with his 75-year-old owner-trainer, Tom McCarthy, looking on from the backstretch.

General Quarters, a 14-1 winner of the Blue Grass Stakes, is a one-horse stable that McCarthy, a retired Louisville high school principal, oversees in Barn 37. As such, the heartwarming nature of his underdog story is drawing media from near and far, and McCarthy's ever-present supporters are wondering how long he can withstand such a furious pace of answering the same questions over and over again.

"It's been unbelievable," said Mike Adams, who is married to McCarthy's daughter, Molly, and was among a dozen or so family members and friends on hand for the Thursday work. "He got out of his truck at the house [Wednesday afternoon] and just said, 'Hey.' I could tell he was totally exhausted. We've got a long way to go, and the really hard part hasn't even started yet."

McCarthy and his wife, Pat, have five adult children, and with all the extended family that plans to attend Derby Day, the logistics have become overwhelming.

"My mother-in-law is trying to take care of all the tickets and get everybody coming in from out of town situated," said Adams, "but it's been really hectic."

The McCarthys live on a 13-acre tract in the southeastern section of Louisville, and "just trying to keep up with the mowing and everything else while this has been going on has been really tough," Adams said. "We're all pitching in where we can. I'm sure we'll look back on it one day and still be amazed at how it all happened."

Exciting morning for Quality Road

Though still in New York, Quality Road got a little taste of what Churchill will be like next week during his Thursday morning training session over the Belmont Park training track. While jogging to the gate for a schooling session alongside his stable pony, Gizmo, Quality Road was passed by a loose horse who had lost his rider while running off at breakneck speed. Quality Road barely moved a muscle.

With a number of other horses at the gate, Quality Road had to wait for about 10 minutes before being loaded. Though he stood still for most of that time, Quality Road then got a little ornery, twice kicking his hind legs off the ground and then hesitating before loading.

Trainer Jimmy Jerkens noted that Quality Road "was a little stubborn going to the gate for the Florida Derby."

Once in the gate, Quality Road stood perfectly still before being backed out. He then galloped about three-quarters of a mile, clearly wanting to do more than exercise rider Juan Moreno would permit.

Quality Road then walked back to his barn, arriving just ahead of another loose horse whizzing off the track.

"Better get used to the circus, right?" said Jerkens.

Quality Road is scheduled to have his final major breeze Saturday and will ship to Kentucky on Tuesday.

In other Derby developments:

* Trainer Saeed bin Suroor announced Thursday that Godolphin plans to run both of their colts in the Derby, with Ramon Dominguez to ride Desert Party and Alan Garcia to ride Regal Ransom.

* Hold Me Back, the Blue Grass runner-up, had his first tour of the Churchill oval when going easily twice around. The colt arrived the previous day from Keeneland and will work Sunday or Monday, trainer Bill Mott said.

* Win Willy, the Rebel Stakes winner, arrived at Churchill at 10:30 a.m. Thursday from Oaklawn Park.

- additional reporting by David Grening