04/30/2009 12:00AM

Six take first grab for brass ring

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Barbara D. Livingston
Benny "Chip" Woolley Jr., hurt in a motorcycle accident, brought Mine That Bird to Louisville himself.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - By now, the story of Tom McCarthy has been well told - the improbability of a 75-year-old retired high school principal making it to the Kentucky Derby with General Quarters as the ultimate underdog on racing's greatest stage.

No doubt about it, the odds of McCarthy making the Derby with a one-horse stable after decades of obscurity can't be much shorter than hitting the Powerball lottery. Yet McCarthy is just one of six trainers whose Derby debut will come Saturday at Churchill Downs.

The backgrounds of the other five may not be as dramatic, but they are compelling nonetheless. All have spent virtually their entire adult lives on the racetrack, but none would have dared to predict as recently as a year ago that he would be running his first horse in the Kentucky Derby.

Kelly Breen, the trainer of West Side Bernie and Atomic Rain, vividly remembers standing on a strawless, blacktopped stall in the Philadelphia Park receiving barn nearly 10 years ago, with two cheap horses under his care and a pregnant wife at home.

"It was pretty scary," said Breen.

Breen, 39, had worked as the right-hand man to Ben Perkins Sr. for six years, but when Perkins retired in late 1999, all the horses owned by his main client, the New Farm of Ebby Novak, were turned over to Ben Perkins Jr., with Breen the odd man out.

"I was at Philly Park with a New York-bred maiden and a $5,000 claimer trying to get started on my own," he said. "I made phone calls, tried calling in a few markers, took out an ad in the Daily Racing Form. I got very little response."

To his credit, Breen persevered, and became the leading trainer at his home track, Monmouth Park, in 2005 and 2006. "That's a source of real pride for me," he said. "And now I'm in the Derby."

The road has been even longer and bumpier for the trainer of Papa Clem, Gary Stute, whose 52 years have been inextricably intertwined with the racing game - sometime to his own detriment. His father, Mel Stute, is an iconic Southern California trainer who won the 1986 Preakness with Snow Chief, and Gary became well versed in every aspect of the game - including its more unsavory ones.

Drinking, drugging, and over-the-top horseplaying led to innumerable low points during Stute's stints in a variety of racetrack roles, from stablehand and assistant trainer to jockey agent and trainer. Eventually, he said, maturity helped him to wise up, and today, as a trainer of about 12 horses, he is amazed to find himself with a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender.

"To be honest, if I win this thing, I don't feel like I'd deserve it," Stute said. "It would be more for my dad and Warren" - his late uncle, Warren Stute, a longtime trainer. "But if God's going to give it to me, I'll take it."

While the Stutes are household names on the high-profile Southern California circuit, even the majority of racing insiders had never heard the name of Benny "Chip" Woolley Jr. until a couple of weeks ago, when the connections of Mine That Bird phoned Churchill officials from New Mexico to say they wanted to run the colt in the Derby.

Woolley, 45, probably drew more backstretch curiosity during Derby week for walking around on crutches - he was injured riding his motorcycle - and for being a self-professed "country boy" who pulled Mine That Bird some 1,500 miles to Louisville on a trailer behind his Ford pickup than for his colt's chances to be a serious player in the race.

"We could've run the colt elsewhere, but we thought this could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance for me and the owners," Woolley said.

Derek Ryan, the trainer of Musket Man, brings a more cosmopolitan outlook to his first Derby. A 42-year-old native of Tipperary, Ireland, Ryan has lived and worked at tracks in New York, New Jersey, Florida, and Pennsylvania. His confident demeanor gives the impression that he is not here just to sight-see.

A former exercise rider and assistant trainer who went out on his own in 1996, Ryan speaks knowledgeably about the countless nuances of racing and about how trying and unglamorous the life of a trainer can be. Asked whether he ever thinks about getting into another profession, he laughed and said, "All the time. Probably the worst part is not getting paid. It's pretty bad when you win and still can't get paid."

Further pressed, Ryan concedes that he is a lifelong racetracker who, deep down, can't help but love the game. And having a Derby horse is about as good as it gets.

"Couldn't ask for much more," he said.

At 34, Tim Ice, the trainer of Summer Bird, is the youngest of the 2009 crop of first-time Derby trainers, as well as the least experienced - at least as a licensed trainer. But Ice's roots in racing go so deep that he can tell stories about being a kid kicking around the backstretch at once-decrepit Waterford Park (now Mountaineer) in West Virginia, where his stepfather, Frank Rapp, trained hand-me-downs from the prodigious stable of the late John Franks.

"We moved to Louisiana in 1991, and that's pretty much where I've been ever since," said Ice, who worked his way up as an assistant to Morris Nicks, Cole Norman, and Keith Desormeaux before K.K. Jayaraman, the owner of Summer Bird, set him up with his own stable last June.

Ice said early this week that the reality of being in the Derby in his first year of training "hasn't really sunk in yet, although it probably will as we get closer to the race."

For all the first-time trainers, this Derby will create memories to last a lifetime. Breen said Perkins "probably told me his Derby story 100 times," referring to the 1975 running, when Perkins saddled his only Derby starter, Bombay Duck, as a front-running longshot. Derby lore has it that a fan in the infield threw a full beer can that struck Bombay Duck on his left flank as the horses raced down the backstretch, and the colt quickly faded to finish last of 15. This was before the Churchill turf course had been built, and infield fans were stationed in relatively close proximity to the track.

"The next year, they moved the infield fence way back, away from the track," Breen said. "That was Bombay Duck's contribution to the Kentucky Derby."

Breen and his fellow Derby rookies are hoping to make a more meaningful impact this year - and recent history is on their side. First-time trainers have won five of the last six, and six of the last nine, runnings of the Derby. Neil Drysdale won in 2000 with Fusaichi Pegasus, followed by Barclay Tagg (Funny Cide, 2003), John Servis (Smarty Jones, 2004), John Shirreffs (Giacomo, 2005), Michael Matz (Barbaro, 2006), and Rick Dutrow (Big Brown, 2008).

"Even if you don't end up doing any good, just being in the Kentucky Derby is something you'll always remember and appreciate," Breen said. "But I would love to win it."