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Jay Hovdey: Kentucky Derby-winning trainers share some special memories
By Jay Hovdey
It’s a pretty exclusive club – just 20 living members – and many of them weren’t exactly household names when they showed up in Louisville. But when they left town, they were known far and wide in the world of sports as trainers who somehow got the job done in the game’s most unforgiving crucible. They had won the Kentucky Derby.
At this point, one week out from the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby, the trainers of the 20 or so horses still in Derby mix are counting the days and the hours until they lead their 3-year-olds into the arena. If they have been there before they will know how to parcel their time and preserve their sanity. The rookies will fret, but then at some point they will look around and take comfort in the fact that everyone else is in the same storm-tossed boat.
“I wasn’t supposed to win,” said Chip Woolley, who drove Mine That Bird from New Mexico to Kentucky two weeks before the 2009 Derby. “That takes off a lot of pressure. Somebody asked me what happens if you run last. I told them if that happened I’d join a long list of great trainers who did.”
He didn’t. Mine That Bird, who couldn’t win the Sunland Derby, won the Kentucky Derby at odds of 50-1, drawing off through the stretch to win by six. That was the headline on the cover of Sports Illustrated that week – “50-1” – which also was the last time a horse racing story made the cover of the national magazine.
“In my own mind I knew I belonged there,” Woolley said. “And the whole time we were there my horse never missed an oat. I never thought he’d be any worse than fourth or fifth. ‘Course, there weren’t a whole lot of people coming around I could tell that to.”
By the time John Servis got to the 2004 Kentucky Derby with the unbeaten Arkansas Derby winner Smarty Jones, the trainer was a hardened veteran of the Mid-Atlantic circuit who had won an Alabama Stakes and campaigned a respectable number of stakes horses. Still, as a Derby rookie he admits to making a mistake he had the good sense to correct before any harm was done to his chances.
“There was a lot of construction going on at Churchill Downs, and I didn’t know how hectic that was going to be,” Servis said. “I knew Keeneland would have a nice, laid-back atmosphere for my horse, so we’d go there and maybe head for Churchill four days before the race.”
Servis got it half right.
“Keeneland was just what I expected,” he said. “Every afternoon I’d go back to the barn and Smarty was sprawled out in his stall just snoozing away. Unfortunately, he didn’t care for the racetrack. He wasn’t as aggressive as he usually was. Kind of off the bit, and he’d come back some mornings with a little bit of filling in his ankles. Nothing serious, but you could tell it wasn’t to his liking.”
Finally, on a rainy morning about 10 days out from the Derby, Servis sent Smarty Jones to the Keeneland training track instead of the main track. The difference was remarkable.
“I ordered a van that morning to take him to Churchill Downs,” Servis said. “Once we got there he was hitting on all cylinders again. And as far as the atmosphere at Churchill, he loved it. I mean, every time you walked by his stall, if he wasn’t eating he was sleeping. When he worked lights out the Saturday before the race I was feeling pretty good.”
And no doubt gave himself a pat on the back for making the move from Keeneland to Churchill.
“No, I was kind of mad at myself for taking so long to figure it out,” Servis replied.
Smarty Jones skipped over a sloppy racetrack to win the 2004 Derby by 2 3/4 lengths. You also could find his winning image on the cover of “Sports Illustrated” that week. Servis has not been back to the Derby since.
“It took a little while to get over the fact that people stopped calling me,” Servis cracked. “But I got over that.”
Michael Matz can be forgiven if he is going through a little bit of media withdrawal this year. He took the 2006 Kentucky Derby with unbeaten Florida Derby winner Barbaro in his first try. Last year, he had Union Rags, who was a troubled seventh as second choice in the field of 20. Matz, a former Olympic equestrian, recalls spending a lot of time during his first Derby go-round pumping fellow horsemen for information.
“The press was on my case for not running in the six weeks since winning the Florida Derby,” Matz said. “And you do worry about whether you’ve done too much or too little. Most trainers told me it was very important your horse had enough speed to get away from the gate and be in good position for the first turn. So I spent most of that week before the Derby worrying about the first turn. It scared the pants off me.”
Let the record show Barbaro handled the first turn like a champ and went on from there to win by 6 1/2 lengths. The relief for Matz was palpable, and enabled him to erase the near trauma of Barbaro’s important half-mile work the week before the race under Peter Brette.
“He was about to break off when the sirens went off for a loose horse,” Matz said. “I was at the five-sixteenths pole waiting for my horse to work past me, but no Barbaro. Turns out Peter stopped when he was ready to break off, jogged back and waited for the loose horse to be caught, then started again. That shows you what kind of horse he was.”
Welcome to Derby week.
After reading your article, I have come to the conclusion that all the winning and losing trainers that are living must have a very special story to relate . Each and every one is such a part of the Kentucky Derby experience. Thanks for re-telling some of them. I for one, would love more.
"An oat" probably wasn't the only thing that Mine That Bird didn't miss, amirite?
Talk to Billy Turner - his Triple Crown run with Seattle Slew is still a classic!
Barbaro was a very very special horse. They don't come along that often. Plus as a stud horse who knows what would have happened??? Tragic story for Michael Matz and American racing!
Charlie, David Cross Jr, Sherriffs, et al ect ect
There is saying that goes "everyone speaks of the fair, depending on what rides they got on" . Doesn't matter if you are an experienced trainer in the ways of the Derby or not. Thre are offcourse certain circumstances that you learn as you go, but the bottom line is that once the first Saturday in May is here, and you saddle your horse and send off to his date with destiny, it's all out of your hands. There are 20 horses in that starting gate, and each one of them earned their spot in there. The difficult part is getting to he gate, once you are there, it's anyone's race....even money or 200-1. Got to love it!
Welcome indeed! As an aside - on Derby Day 09 a friend called me up and said he was going to a Derby Party. He then asked who did I liked. "Nobody", I said, "the race is wide-open. Get the biggest price you can." I was working, so I bet not a penny. But THAT race was THAT wide-open. (friend bet the wrong long-shot but had a good time). True story. Hope for a fast track and let it fly. Thanks, Jay.
Great article!! No mystery the winners are generally thriving leading up to the race. Quite tragic about Barbaro. He won the Derby going wide, pulling away in a common gallop. Hardly even set down. He would have had a big shot IMO at the Triple Crown. Bernardini became a great hoss but was much less seasoned than Barbaro Preakness and Derby time.
Hope you and bride are doing well. It would have been nice to hear her at least drop a line on the passing of Colonial Affair. A lot of us thought the ball was dropped on that one.
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