05/03/2011 12:21PM

Zetcher thrilled to merely see Midnight Interlude make Kentucky Derby field

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Some time after midnight, early last Monday morning, Arnold Zetcher and his wife Ellen stepped away from the news of Osama bin Laden’s death coming from their hotel room television set to look down from the balcony upon historic Boston Common, where a huge, mobile crowd had gathered to wave the flag and mark the occasion.

“The week before the planes hit the towers I had a business meeting in the World Trade Center,“ said Zetcher, the retired CEO of the Talbot’s clothing empire. “I was living and working in Boston at the time, and of course those planes coming from Boston was where it all started, so there still is a very deep connection to those terrible events. It was truly a sight to watch those thousands of people, most of them students, singing songs and cheering ‘U-S-A,’ in celebration more than anything.”

For Zetcher, Kentucky Derby Week had begun.

On Saturday, the Zetchers, now Californians, will make their Derby debut with Midnight Interlude, a son of War Chant who burst into the picture with his upset victory in the million-dollar Santa Anita Derby, on April 9. On the morning of the Santa Anita race, running in the Kentucky Derby was the last thing on Arnold Zetcher’s mind. It was only in the immediate wake of the colt’s narrow win over Comma to the Top that Zetcher turned to trainer Bob Baffert and dared give voice to the words: “Does this really mean we’re going to the Kentucky Derby?”

The answer was yes.

Never mind that Midnight Interlude was still a maiden just 19 days before the Santa Anita Derby, or that he was at that point well down on a Baffert Derby depth-chart topped by The Factor and Jaycito, or that the Zetcher colt was burdened with the deadly Derby albatross of being unraced at 2. Never mind all that.

He was the Santa Anita Derby winner, and he was going to the Derby.

If they are physically capable, Santa Anita Derby winners always run in the Kentucky Derby. They might not run well – the last one to win was Sunday Silence, in 1989 – but they show up.

Cavonnier lost by Grindstone’s lip in 1996. Indian Charlie and Free House were both honorable thirds. Pioneerof the Nile beat all the horses he could see when second to the disappearing Mine That Bird, and both Baffert and Gary Stevens would give their eye teeth for a do-over with Point Given from 2001.

As for Midnight Interlude’s lack of experience as a 2-year-old, Zetcher at least was warned.

“When he first came in, the guys at the barn liked him a lot,” Zetcher said. “But they also said he had an awful lot still to learn.”

So he did, beginning with his first start on Jan. 29, with a third, then a second, then an 8 1/2-length maiden win in the slop. Competing in a Grade 1 event like the Santa Anita Derby in his fourth start was a stretch, sure. But then the good horses these days are asked to make such leaps.

Of all the Derby don’ts, a lack of 2-year-old experience will be the last to fall. There is a reason no horse unraced at 2 has won the Derby since Apollo did it in 1882, primarily because most owners try hard to get their horses to the races as soon as possible. Some good ones have tried to buck the trend, most famously three-time Horse of the Year Forego, who finished fourth to Secretariat, and two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, who was third behind Street Sense.

(Apollo, it should be noted, was not exactly shy. He ended up running 21 times as a 3-year-old and 30 more times at 4.)

Charlie Whittingham nearly put a fork in the Apollo curse in 1994 with Strodes Creek, a son of Halo who was third in the Santa Anita Derby. At Churchill Downs, Strodes Creek caught his first sloppy track and was knocked sideways on the first turn before finishing second, beaten two lengths, by Go for Gin. Such history entertains Zetcher without discouraging him.

“We know he’s only run four times,” Zetcher said. “He’s learned something each time he’s run, and he’s been doing everything asked of him.

“This is such a strange game,“ Zetcher went on. “You just have to live it day by day. A month ago everyone was talking about a horse like The Factor. There have been people with horses on the Derby trail for six months, nine months. I’m not sure I could last that long. We’ve been on it three and a half weeks and that seems like forever.”

Zetcher’s deeply pragmatic nature as a successful businessman has been tweaked by the unpredictable nature of Thoroughbreds. He even tapped into the zen of Midnight Interlude’s sudden emergence.

“There’s so much that can happen to a Derby horse along the way,” Zetcher said. “In our case, if we’d had a setback before the Santa Anita Derby, it would have been, ‘Oh well, we might miss a race.’ At least at that point the wasn‘t a Derby horse.”

During his 20 years at the Talbots helm, the company went from 120 stores to more than 1,000. Zetcher, who retired as CEO and president in 2008, earned enough from a 2-for-1 Talbot’s stock split in 2000 to get into Thoroughbred racing, initially with Ron McAnally. In the past decade the Zetchers have taken such prizes as the Pacific Classic, the Del Mar Derby, the Acorn, the Fantasy, and the 2010 New Orleans Ladies, in which their Zardana defeated reigning Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra.

The Zetchers first went to the Derby in 1999 as fans, bought seats, dodged raindrops, and watched Bob and Beverly Lewis win with Charismatic. More recently they have run in races the day before, including two runnings of the Oaks with House of Fortune and Gabby’s Golden Gal, and stuck around for Saturday. Now, being in the right race at the right time on Santa Anita Derby day with Midnight Interlude has put them in the thick of racing’s biggest event.

“All we want really is to get to Saturday, get in the gate, and get out of the gate,” Zetcher said. “After that, whatever happens happens.”