04/23/2014 12:03PM

Maker flying into Kentucky Derby under radar

Barbara D. Livingston
General a Rod, training at Churchill Downs on Wednesday, is one of three Mike Maker-trained horses possible for the Kentucky Derby.

He’s got the winner of the Louisiana Derby, a colt who was both runner-up in the Fountain of Youth and a close third in the Florida Derby, and a longshot, yet Mike Maker might be the least-known big-time trainer in this year’s Kentucky Derby.

Only Todd Pletcher, who has four horses in the current field of 20, has more prospective starters in the May 3 Derby than Maker. Both were born into the sport, with fathers who trained; both worked under D. Wayne Lukas before striking out on their own; and both will be sending out Derby starters owned by Ken and Sarah Ramsey.

Maker, though, has a lower profile. Although he has had tremendous success, with training titles at Churchill Downs, Keeneland, and Turfway Park, Maker is based in Kentucky at the Trackside training center, not Churchill Downs, though he did send his Derby runners there this week for their final preparations.

And while Maker tends to be quiet, he is quite candid, uncannily observant, and seems to have grown more comfortable in recent years with being interviewed, which has happened with greater frequency as his profile has risen. He has won a pair of Breeders’ Cup races, and last year was his best year yet statistically. Maker finished eighth nationally in purse earnings – his starters earned $8,357,325 – and fourth in wins.

Maker, 45, has had five Derby starters, all since 2010, most recently 2-year-old champion Hansen, who finished ninth in 2012. Fear the Kitten, his 2013 entrant, failed to draw in from the also-eligible list. But Maker’s Derby experience spans almost two decades. He was with Lukas in the years when Thunder Gulch (1995), Grindstone (1996), and Charismatic (1999) won the Derby. Maker went out on his own in 2003.

Vicar’s in Trouble, the Derby entrant Maker has for the Ramseys, won the Louisiana Derby in his last start.

[DERBY WATCH: Top 20 list | Who's hot, who's not]

“He still needs to move forward, which he has,” Maker said this week on a national teleconference. “He’s on the small side. He’s not the most attractive horse, but he’s well balanced. He wouldn’t win any beauty contests, but he makes up for it in heart and try.”

Vicar’s in Trouble also won the Lecomte Stakes earlier in the year at Fair Grounds and was third in the Risen Star Stakes after starting from post 13 in a field of 14. Maker said he and jockey Rosie Napravnik learned a lot from the Risen Star.

“He had a bad post, and I instructed Rosie to rate and save ground, but he resented that a little bit,” said Maker, who said that in the Kentucky Derby, he’d ideally like to see Vicar’s in Trouble “place himself and hopefully get a good tracking trip behind the speed.”

Maker also trains General a Rod, who won the Gulfstream Park Derby on Jan. 1, was beaten 1 1/2 lengths when third in the Florida Derby, and lost a head bob to Wildcat Red in the Fountain of Youth.

Maker said the strategy in the Florida Derby was to be closer to Wildcat Red early, but those plans had to be adjusted when jockey Joel Rosario temporarily lost a stirrup going into the first turn.

“We didn’t get the pressure we needed,” Maker said. “We had to track instead of pressing like we hoped.”

General a Rod worked Wednesday at Churchill Downs, going five furlongs in 1:03.32, according to Daily Racing Form . He is owned by Armando Rodriguez, who named the horse after himself, not baseball player Alex Rodriguez.

Harry’s Holiday earned his way into the Derby for Maker via a second-place finish in the Spiral Stakes. He finished 13th of 14 in the Blue Grass Stakes last time out. His owners are from Louisville, hence their desire to run, even as one of the decided longshots in this field.

In other Derby developments:

Hoppertunity, the Santa Anita Derby runner-up, worked five furlongs in 1:00.25 at Churchill Downs on Wednesday, according to DRF . He will have a final work early next week.

◗ Bob Baffert, the trainer of Hoppertunity, said he would enter both Chitu and Bayern in the Derby Trial but was not sure if either would run. He said he was desirous of getting Bayern into the Derby field. Bayern is 23rd on the list, and Chitu is 12th.

“Chitu, I don’t know what I’m going to do with him,” Baffert said Wednesday. “His work the other day was a little dull, but he looked good out there today. I think a lot of these horses, you work them one time here and they sort of struggle with the track. They sort of have to get used to it. I just don’t know yet what I’m going to do about the Derby Trial. I need to put a hard work into Chitu. If Bayern can get in [to the Derby], I’ll put him in. I’ll enter both in the Derby Trial, but I don’t know yet if I’m going to run.”

– additional reporting by Mike Welsch