04/26/2013 3:01PM

Jay Hovdey: Kentucky Derby-winning trainers share some special memories

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Michael Matz recalls that he took a lot of heat from the media in 2006 when he brought Barbaro to the Kentucky Derby without having raced for six weeks.

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.

[DERBY WATCH: Top 20 Kentucky Derby contenders with odds and video]

“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.