04/27/2010 11:00PM

In a flash, Derby high turns to despair

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Not that she wanted to find out, but now Shannon Ritter knows how it feels to get so close, only to suffer a crushing blow.

Ritter trains Endorsement, who was withdrawn from the Kentucky Derby on Wednesday morning at Churchill Downs after suffering a condylar fracture of his right front ankle following what was to be his final workout for the Derby. Ritter, who was aboard Endorsement for the work, knew while walking back to the barn that something was amiss.

"I noticed it when we were walking home," she said.

X-rays confirmed what she feared. Endorsement was out of the Derby. He would have been her first starter.

"Obviously it's very disappointing," she said. "It's hard to get to the Derby."

It's even harder to win the Triple Crown. Just ask Bob Baffert, who has had three horses win the Derby and Preakness, only to lose the Belmont. In 1998, Baffert was going for a sweep of the three-race series with Real Quiet, who had defeated Victory Gallop in both the Derby and Preakness. In the Belmont, Real Quiet had a four-length lead at midstretch. A 20-year Triple Crown drought was about to end.

But then Victory Gallop closed furiously and got up to win by a nose. It was a devastating loss. But if you were on the other end, it was sweet vindication. That's how Ritter felt. She was the exercise rider for Victory Gallop.

Ritter would have been attempting to become the first woman to train a Derby winner. Shelley Riley finished second with Casual Lies in 1992, and Kristin Mulhall was third with Imperialism in 2004. Instead, that chance now goes to Alexis Barba, whose Make Music for Me got into the Derby field only because of the defection of Endorsement just hours before entry time Wednesday.

"It's kind of overwhelming," Barba said. "What can I say? I'm in the Kentucky Derby. I've been thinking about it. But it's a reality now. I feel like Vice President Biden did when he was caught with that open microphone, when he said, 'This is pretty [expletive] big.' "

Barba, 57, has been a head trainer for 10 years. She took over the barn of her mentor, Eddie Gregson, following his suicide.

Ritter, 45, can't remember when the horse bug first bit her, but it bit hard. No one in her family was involved in racing. Growing up, there was no Thoroughbred racing in her home state of Minnesota. (Canterbury Park opened in 1985.) But when she saw the Derby on television one year, she says she thought, "I want to do that."

"It was just a love of horses," she said. "I was very athletic in school. Played soccer, ran track - the mile and the mile relay. I just had a need for speed. My dad had a body shop when I was young. They did drag racing. Maybe that's where I got my need for speed.

"Growing up, I rode trail horses, and every summer I would go to horseback camp. Then, in 10th grade, we moved to the suburbs, to a place where you could have horses on the property. But when I went to the track, my family all thought I was crazy."

She ran away and joined the racing circus, first as an exercise rider for trainer Kathy Walsh in Minnesota and Southern California, then as a jockey in Minnesota and the Pacific Northwest. She was the leading rider at Portland Meadows in 1990-91. Seven years later, she quit race riding and began working as an exercise rider for Elliott Walden.

Ritter progressed to being an assistant trainer to Walden, and when Walden retired from training five years ago in order to become the general manager of WinStar Farm, Ritter became a head trainer, with backing from WinStar. While WinStar - owned by Bill Casner and Kenny Troutt - also employs such high-profile trainers as Todd Pletcher, Bill Mott, and Eoin Harty, Ritter gets a few horses from WinStar each year, such as Endorsement.

"She's a good team player," Walden said. "She gets about five to seven from us a year."

Ritter currently has 11 runners. In addition to WinStar, her clients include Shane Ryan's Castleton Lyons - the outfit that owns dual Eclipse Award winner Gio Ponti - as well as Arthur Bunn of Illinois and John Foster of South Carolina.

"When she came to work for me, she was a great rider," Walden said. "She had been a jockey, but she has been able to develop skills not only on the back of a horse, but on the ground as well. For an exercise rider to make it in this business as a trainer, they have to understand what they see on the ground, and what they feel on the back of a horse, and be able to make that connection. She was ready to go out on her own when she did."

"She's got a hands-on approach," said Doug Cauthen, the president of WinStar. "She's done as well as anyone with any horse we've given her. She's a class person and a top horsewoman. You know when someone knows what they're doing. She's obvious."

Ritter has the steady equilibrium of someone who has seen it all through her days as a jockey, then an exercise rider, and now a trainer. She held up well on Wednesday morning, when in the space of minutes her dream of saddling a Derby winner ended. She faced the press with her jaw set squarely, and vowed, like Gen. Douglas MacArthur, "I'll be back."

"It's a difficult game," Cauthen said. "A lot of highs and lows. Three minutes before we noticed he was hurt, here we are going, 'Yeah,' because he had worked so well."

The moods Wednesday morning at the barns where Endorsement and Make Music for Me are stabled were a stark study in contrast. Ritter, Cauthen, Walden, Casner, and Casner's wife, Susan, were huddled quietly around Endorsement's stall, looking at the X-rays taken by Dr. Beau Landry, while the awful reality set in.

Barba was trying to contain her emotions, happy she had gotten in, disappointed it was over someone else's misfortune.

"I never gave up," Barba said. "I know this business too well."