05/02/2009 12:00AM

No shortage of story lines in Derby 135


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Trainer Larry Jones is a quietly religious man, one who relied on his faith to get him through the past year since the filly he trained, Eight Belles, ran a gallant second in the Kentucky Derby and then collapsed with fractures to both front legs and had to be euthanized, right on the track.

Jones was put through an emotional ringer. Despite shrill implications made by organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, he said Eight Belles had been given the best of care, and lab tests proved what Jones had insisted all along, that she did not race on steroids. In her memory, Jones took to wearing a plastic red wrist bracelet in honor of equine research that had the name Eight Belles printed on it.

His return to Churchill Downs this week, to run Friesan Fire in the 135th Derby on Saturday, has been devoid of the drama one might have expected.

"We've been fine. No issues," Jones said.

But he had been searching for a sign that it was time to move on, not to ignore what happened, but to make peace with it. He got it this week.

"That Eight Belles bracelet, I wore it all the time, never took it off, not to shower, not when I went to the hospital," Jones said at his barn early Thursday morning at Churchill Downs. "I was at a service at the track chapel two days ago, and I looked down at my wrist, and the bracelet had broken. I thought, 'It's all over now. It's time to move on.' You don't go to the chapel and just have it pop off. I thought, 'There's a sign. It's behind us now. Go on.'

"I'm glad to be here," he said. "We're here with a good shot."

Friesan Fire, the Louisiana Derby winner, is one of the top contenders in a race that drew a maximum field of 20 entrants. Should Friesan Fire win, after what happened to Jones and co-owner Rick Porter a year ago, there won't be a dry eye in the house.

Yet the backstory of Jones - who also finished second in 2007 with Hard Spun - is only one of several compelling aspects of this Derby.

Trainer Tom McCarthy, 75, a retired high-school principal and resident of this city, is trying to win the Derby with the only horse he has, Blue Grass Stakes winner General Quarters, whom McCarthy also owns.

Bill Mott, a Hall of Fame trainer, is trying to win his first Derby with Hold Me Back, the Blue Grass runner-up, and he is competing against a horse he used to train, Pioneerof the Nile, who has won four straight races, including the Santa Anita Derby, since moving to trainer Bob Baffert.

Todd Pletcher, who has sent out more horses (21) than any trainer without winning the Derby, has three shots this year with Advice, Dunkirk, and Join in the Dance. He will try to avoid having the last-place finisher for the fourth straight year.

Dunkirk, the Florida Derby runner-up, is trying to become the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win the Derby without having started as a 2-year-old.

The WinStar Farm of owners Bill Casner and Kenny Troutt has three runners in Advice, Hold Me Back, and Mr. Hot Stuff, and they will give track announcer Mark Johnson, calling his first Derby, fits by lining up in adjacent stalls with similar silks.

Harty used to train Desert Party, the United Emirates Derby runner-up, who is now part of the powerful Godolphin Racing operation, which has had committed millions of dollars and numerous horses to a thus-far failed attempt to win the Derby by prepping their horses during the winter in Dubai. Godolphin also sends out Regal Ransom, who upset his stablemate in the UAE Derby.

Jenny Craig, the weight-loss icon, owns Chocolate Candy, a name not often considered part of anyone's diet plan.

Trainers Kelly Breen (Atomic Rain and West Side Bernie), Tim Ice (Summer Bird), Derek Ryan (Musket Man), Gary Stute (Papa Clem), Bennie Woolley Jr. (Mine That Bird), and McCarthy will try to win the Derby in their first attempt, which has happened in the Derby five of the last six years.

Trainers D. Wayne Lukas (Flying Private) and Nick Zito (Nowhere to Hide), both multiple Derby winners and members of the Hall of Fame, will try to add to their haul with improbable longshots.

Yet the horse they all have to beat is I Want Revenge, who is the morning-line favorite based on impressive victories in Wood Memorial and Gotham Stakes.

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I Want Revenge is trained by Jeff Mullins, a controversial figure who seems cut from central casting to play the bad guy. Mullins is good at what he does, having won several training titles in Southern California. He is disarmingly genial and ruggedly handsome, yet has received several medication violations that have clouded his reputation.

As if to embrace that reputation, Mullins will sometimes wear a black hat. He was advised this week by Baffert to lose it, but it did not sound like Mullins was going to pay any heed.

"He said if I win I've got to lose the hat," Mullins said. Then, while smiling, Mullins took a dig at Baffert's quirks, saying, "Maybe I'll come to work at 8 o'clock and shout orders to my riders from a walkie-talkie."

I Want Revenge will be ridden by Joe Talamo, 19, who is trying to become the first teen jockey to win the Derby with his first mount in 30 years.

"This is incredible," Talamo said. "I'm taking it all in. I've talked to guys like Gary Stevens and Robby Albarado. Their advice was don't cry during 'My Old Kentucky Home,' try not to let everything get to you."

The field for the Derby is double-loaded into the starting gate, meaning posts 1 and 11 will go in first, then 2 and 12, with 10 and 20 the last to enter. I Want Revenge, who has post 13 in the Derby, broke poorly in the Wood Memorial. He schooled at the starting gate on Thursday morning.

"It was a freak deal," Mullins said of the start of the Wood. "A horse inside of him rattled the gate, and he took a step back just as they kicked it."

Papa Clem, the Arkansas Derby winner, also had some last-minute fine-tuning on Thursday. He worked swiftly through the stretch, covering three furlongs in 34.47 seconds, according to Daily Racing Form. Nowhere to Hide breezed a quarter-mile through the stretch.

If all 20 horses start, the Derby purse will be $2,202,200, and the winner's share will be $1,442,200.

The Derby is the 11th race on a 13-race card that begins at 10:30 a.m. Eastern time and is not scheduled to conclude until 7:34 p.m., more than nine hours later. Post time for the Derby is listed as 6:24 p.m. The Derby will be shown live by NBC, on a three-hour telecast that begins at 4 p.m. ESPN is showing races 4 through 10 of the undercard, in a five-hour telecast beginning at noon.

Rain, including thunderstorms, was forecast by for Friday, and it began raining heavily shortly at 9 a.m. on Thursday. Saturday's forecast is a 60-percent chance of showers, and a high temperature of 67 degrees.

- additional reporting by Mike Welsch