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Relative calm away from storm
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Tuesday of Kentucky Derby week is the unofficial start of backstretch mania at Churchill Downs, where everyone and their brother and cousin are out early, trying to get a glimpse of their Derby favorites.
Not so at Trackside, the training annex located about five miles east of Churchill. Maybe a few dozen additional onlookers were present Tuesday morning to watch Perfect Drift go through his final workout for the 128th Derby, but not enough to drown out the frequent beeps and clangs from the nearby sanitation company nor the dull roar of traffic from the Watterson Expressway.
"The only bad thing about Perfect Drift being here," said Phil Thomas Jr., a longtime Trackside trainer, "is that the secret of this place is going to get out. It's a great spot."
Many regulars at Trackside are huge Perfect Drift fans, having watched him train there since last fall. Tuesday, with Joe Deegan up, Perfect Drift did little to dampen their enthusiasm by breezing five furlongs in 1:00.40 over a fast track. Clockers caught the final furlong in under 11 seconds.
Perfect Drift's trainer, Murray Johnson, aboard his paint pony, accompanied Perfect Drift and Deegan off the six-furlong oval. Both men were smiling knowingly.
Some 10 minutes later, Johnson said he wanted to use "all the usual trainer lines," because they applied. "Just what we needed, all that," he said. Then he started kidding: "No one else has a chance," he said. "I don't know why the others are even going to show."
Because Perfect Drift, a Dynaformer gelding, has been based at the out-of-the-way Trackside, and because he raced the entire winter at Turfway Park, his would be a most unusual Derby victory indeed. Yet serious handicappers are giving him a realistic chance, and with Hall of Famer Eddie Delahoussaye to ride, the many angles to his story are credible - if implausible.
"This is a nice, nice horse," said Johnson. "I don't know if he can win the Derby or not, but we'll sure be in there trying."
Johnson's older brother, Tim, was on hand to watch Perfect Drift's work. Tim, 44, and Murray, 42, grew up around horses in their native Australia, where Tim now runs the family breeding farm, Eiling Park, located some two hours north of Melbourne.
The Johnsons are fifth-generation horsemen. One of Australia's most prestigious races, the Cox Plate, was named for their great-great-grandfather, W.S. Cox.
Buddha, Bond arrive
Wood Memorial winner Buddha arrived at Churchill Downs around 10 a.m. Tuesday, following a 15-hour van ride from Belmont Park. He was accompanied on the trip by a stable pony. Buddha was bedded down in stall 7 of Barn 48.
Trainer James Bond, who flew in from New York on Monday night, was eagerly awaiting Buddha's arrival Tuesday while taking his turn in front of the microphones and television cameras.
"He looks great,'' Bond said. "Everybody said he shipped very good, ate some hay on the truck, drank some water. Today's acclimation day."
Buddha did all of his major training in New York and will simply gallop up to the Derby.
Though Buddha will attempt to become the first horse since Exterminator (1918) to win the Derby off four starts, Bond is confident that Buddha's intelligence will overcome his inexperience.
"I don't think I've been around a horse this intelligent I think in my life," said Bond, who is making his Derby debut. "It's just a big edge. He learns everything so quickly you don't have to go to the gate five times, you don't have to put him in behind horses 10 times. He's got a great turn of foot."
Arriving in a van from Florida just after Buddha were Legislator and Baptize, who are scheduled to run in stakes races here this weekend.
Edgar Prado made the trip from New York to Louisville on Monday night, spent less than 15 minutes getting Kentucky Derby favorite Harlan's Holiday to and from the track for his final Derby work on Tuesday morning, and was due back home in time to enjoy dinner with his family that same night.
Prado wasn't the only jockey racking up the frequent flier miles for the sole purpose of working their Derby mounts over the past week. Chris McCarron has twice taken the red-eye from California to work Came Home. Glen Corbett flew in from Iowa for the express purpose of breezing Lusty Latin on Monday morning and was back at Prairie Meadows to accept seven mounts on that evening's card.
"My license says jockey on it, and working horses is part of the job. Even if it means flying from New York to Kentucky to do it," said Prado shortly before heading off to the airport to board his return flight to New York on Tuesday morning. "It's no inconvenience at all," Prado said, adding that he would make the trip any time Ken McPeek, trainer of Harlan's Holiday, asked him.
McCarron agreed with Prado and said he would actually prefer to be given the opportunity to work his Derby mount, even if it meant making the 3 1/2- to four-hour flight from Los Angeles to Louisville.
'"It's not often we have to do these things," McCarron said. "In fact, I'd say except for the Triple Crown races I've rarely flown anywhere to work a horse. But last week when I flew in to work Came Home was a perfect example why I prefer to breeze my own Derby mount. If I had read in the paper Came Home had worked in 1:12 and change over this track with someone else aboard, I'd have been concerned he'd done too much. Since I was on his back and had a hands-on feel for how easily he went, not only does it put my mind at ease, but it's given me added confidence that he's coming up to a big race."
Cassidy sees almost-even field
Last fall, on a cool morning at Santa Anita, trainer Jim Cassidy reached into a pocket of his windbreaker and pulled out a set of catalog pages, revealing the bloodlines and accomplishments of the horses he had recently bought in England.
Little could Cassidy have known that one of those colts, Ocean Sound, would become a starter in the Kentucky Derby.
Bought for $65,000 at the Tattersalls horses in training sale by Jim Ford, Kelly Mikules, and Deron Pearson, Ocean Sound earned a trip to the Kentucky Derby with a third-place finish in the Blue Grass Stakes on April 13.
On Wednesday, Ocean Sound worked a half-mile in 47.20 seconds under Chris McCarron, who was subbing for Alex Solis, who remained in California.
"I'm not totally convinced he handled it as well as he did in the past, but that's all rhetoric because on the day of the race the track will be different," Cassidy said.
In the Kentucky Derby, McCarron is booked to ride Came Home, while Solis will ride Ocean Sound for the first time.
The owners realize that Ocean Sound will be a longshot in the Kentucky Derby.
"Except for Harlan's Holiday, I think we have a chance this year because the field looks even," Ford said. "I think he'll run better than his odds."
Same place, new talent for Baffert
Bob Baffert has been a Kentucky Derby perennial since running Cavonnier in 1996, but never has he been in the Derby under circumstances like this year's. Baffert acquired War Emblem a little more than three weeks ago, via private purchase following his victory in the Illinois Derby. Every other Derby starter trained by Baffert has been with him since the beginning of his career.
"This will be the best, shortest training job ever if I win it," Baffert said with a laugh Tuesday morning. "This is kind of like one of the best Quarter Horses I ever had. I got Gold Coast Express three weeks before he won a major race. It's all timing. This one just fell in my lap."
Baffert said he is still getting to know War Emblem's preferences. The colt will make his first start for Baffert in the Kentucky Derby. He had been trained by Frank "Bobby" Springer.
"I've never run him," Baffert said. "I've got nothing to compare him with. He looks great. He's settled down."
- additional reporting by Steve Andersen, David Grening, Jay Privman, and Mike Welsch