Updated on 09/17/2011 10:23AM

Indian Express rock 'n rolls into the Derby


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Throughout most of his 82 years, Phil Chess has had a knack for discovering talent. And talent has had a way of finding him.

Last fall Chess got a phone call from trainer Bob Baffert, who recommended that he buy a colt who had won two unimportant races in Panama. The price was $150,000, much more than he had ever paid for a horse, but Chess decided to gamble on this unknown quantity. The colt, Indian Express, ran a sensational race to finish second in the Santa Anita Derby, and he is a bona fide contender in Saturday's Kentucky Derby.

For many people, winning a Derby would be the achievement of a lifetime. But if Chess does it, the feat will merit little more than a footnote in his biography. He and his late brother, Leonard, made a lasting impact on American cultural history. It was only a slight exaggeration when a national magazine chronicled their saga and titled the article "How the Chess brothers invented rock and roll."

Finding a good racehorse was a minor bit of good fortune compared with a discovery the brothers made on a day in 1955. A singer walked into the Chicago office of Chess Records with a demo tape that had already been rejected by two other labels. "It sounded like an old country record," Chess recalled, "but we told him to come back. When he did, he went into our studio and cut a song called 'Maybellene.' We had a feeling about it; the tempo and the beat were there."

That was the start of Chuck Berry's legendary career, which would help rock the entire music industry. "It had surprised us that white kids were starting to pick up on the blues," Chess said.

Chess Records, more than any other force, brought rhythm and blues - black music - into the mainstream of America, where it was transformed into rock and roll.

Phil Chess was born Fiszel Czyz in Motele, Poland, and emigrated to America in 1928. The family settled in Chicago, and in the 1940's Leonard and Phil opened, on the city's predominantly black South Side, a bar that featured jazz as entertainment. The area was teeming with musical talent, prompting Leonard to decide that they should get into the record business, too.

Chess made its reputation by recording the legendary blues singers Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. Then it blazed trails by signing seminal rock-and-rollers - Berry, Bo Diddley, and others - who would deeply influence future generations. The label's impact was immense. "The popular music of the 1960's is almost inconceivable without Chess," Daniel Wattenburg wrote in The Weekly Standard. "For without the recordings of Chess artists, who would the Rolling Stones and dozens of other pop groups have stolen from?"

The Chess Records era came to an end in 1969. The brothers sold the label, intending to concentrate on other business interests, particularly their radio stations, but Leonard died unexpectedly three months after the sale. Phil moved in 1972 to Tucson, Ariz., where he developed the interest that would move his name from the pages of Billboard to Daily Racing Form.

Chess and his wife bought a part-interest in a Quarter Horse who set a track record at Tucson's Rillito Park. There they got acquainted with Baffert, who was then a Quarter Horse trainer. After Baffert moved on to the Thoroughbred game, he trained a couple of claiming horses for the Chesses, who eventually asked him to find a better quality runner for them.

Baffert heard about Indian Express from jockey Laffit Pincay Jr., who knew that the owners were looking to sell. The colt had a respectable pedigree; Baffert had trained his sire, Indian Charlie, who finished third in the 1998 Kentucky Derby. Indian Express had won both of his races in Panama by 10 lengths, but these victories might have signified nothing; he and his opponents could easily have been the equivalent of cheap claiming horses. But Baffert did some some research on the Internet, concluded that the colt had some talent, and offered him to Chess.

Indian Express was not an instant smash hit. Every time he worked in company with other horses, he was outrun by his stablemates. When Chess asked for a progress report, Baffert was candid: "He's a little slow." But in his first U.S. race, a modest sprint stakes, Indian Express did manage to finish a respectable fourth in a field of six.

Baffert didn't get to be one of the most successful members of his profession by being cautious, and he decided to take a shot in California's biggest 3-year-old race - a decision that astonished almost everybody. When jockey Gary Stevens asked where Baffert was going to run the Panamanian colt, and the trainer said his objective was the Santa Anita Derby, Stevens hooted: "He couldn't win the Tijuana Derby." Even Baffert's wife thought her husband had lost his senses.

Baffert trained the colt as hard as he possibly could - literally a make-or-break regimen. He asked 20-year-old Tyler Baze to ride, because he wanted a rider trusting (or naive) enough to believe that Baffert knew what he was doing.

With Chess at his side, the trainer watched Indian Express battle head and head for the lead in the Santa Anita Derby in a suicidal pace, running the first six furlongs in 1:10. The colt destroyed the horse with whom he was dueling, and when the stretch-runners came at him, he wouldn't surrender, losing to Buddy Gil by just a head.

Amazed, Baffert turned to Chess and said, "I guess our next race is the Derby."

"What Derby?" the owner asked.

Not the Tijuana Derby.

(c) 2003 The Washington Post