Setting the scene at Churchill Downs

Updated: May 7, 2010, 4:06 PM ET
By Claire Novak | Special to ESPN.com

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- We converge upon Churchill Downs every year: reporters shipping in from out of town, videographers driving news trucks from the local stations, radio hosts setting up on the backside. Kentucky Derby season brings many people together. And there's a buzz about it, a steady hum of anticipation. The best thing about the Kentucky Derby is that you never know what's going to happen.

It starts long before Monday morning, the theorizing and evaluating and marking of likely favorites, with prep races in places like New York, California and Florida. By the time the week before the Derby rolls around, we've familiarized ourselves with the storylines and running styles of potential contenders. We know who belongs and who could spring the potential upset.

But Derby week is different. The final preps have been run, and most of the works are finished. The horses are now in front of us. We watch them prancing to and from the track, and we seek something inherent, inexplicable. The way a Thoroughbred carries himself -- the length of his stride, arch of his neck, look in his eye -- the essence that says, "I'm a winner!"

Some trainers tell you they're worried only about their own runners. That's not true. They always keep an eye out for weakness in other people's horses. Often, the other guy's weakness can be your only strength.

***

Wednesday the field was drawn, and in the uber-cool setting of Churchill's Secretariat lounge, one step closer to fate and future was made. Of course it could not be a draw lacking drama -- 3-1 favorite Lookin at Lucky was buried in the one hole on the rail, while second choice Sidney's Candy drew the far outside post, 20. But this has hardly been a Derby season for the status quo.

Make Music For Me wasn't even in the field -- he had plans to run in the American Turf on Friday -- until Wednesday morning. Then WinStar Farms' Endorsement, trained by Shannon Ritter, fractured his right front ankle in an 8:30 a.m. work. Ritter's shot at becoming the first female trainer to win the Derby vanished before her eyes. It became Alexis Barba's to lose.

"I can't even believe I'm here," Barba said.

Her place in the field was WinStar's loss. On Monday morning, Bill Casner, the farm's owner, stood outside Barn 41 and reflected on what it's like to experience the week before the Derby; how every morning is a huge hurdle; how, after that last work, you hold your breath and look for anything that might have changed. Three days later, he stood in the same spot and faced the defection of one of his contenders.

Kentucky Derby week is a window in time when everything -- everything -- has to go just right.

***

Eskendereya's greatest flaw worked to Homeboykris' benefit; it meant the latter got to run. The former was trainer Todd Pletcher's first-stringer, impressive Wood Memorial winner, his best shot at winning not only the Derby, but all three legs of the Triple Crown. On Sunday, the colt defected with filling in his left front ankle, an injury yet to be determined. Pletcher announced he was out. Homeboykris, 21st on the list of graded earnings (from which 20 entrants to the Derby field are selected), was in.

"That was a crazy day," Rick Dutrow Jr. said.

Dutrow knows about weakness. Going into the 2008 Kentucky Derby, he fought quarter cracks with eventual winner Big Brown. He also fought the media with a crime-taped, sawhorse-surrounded, security-guard-infested barn area courtesy of Big Brown's owners, IEAH Stable. This year is a far cry from that scene. On Monday morning, Dutrow was lounging in a tack room in Barn 45, a tranquil expression glowing from his moon-shaped face. Chatting with a lone ferrier, he whiled away the hours before his long-shot runner would take to the track. He likes it that way.

"He's supposed to be flying in under the radar," Dutrow said. "But after he ran his last race I felt like he could get here; in my mind I just kept thinking he was gonna get in. The owners are very excited to be here; we're all on a high note."

Dutrow seeks the same thing every other trainer wants to find -- a sign that this runner, this year, is the one.

"I'll tell you one thing, if he gets to standin' and starin' with his ears pricked a lot on the way over there, I'm going to be very excited," he said. "He does it a lot, he did it before the Champagne, and that'll give me a good feeling before the race."

Homeboykris won the Champagne by 1½ lengths in October 2009. It was his last win; he ran second in allowance company at Gulfstream on Feb. 27 last time out. Dutrow thinks his horse is sitting on a big effort. He just doesn't know if he'll get the 1 1/4-miles distance.

That's the same question facing Backtalk, the Tom Amoss trainee who made it into the field when Interactif's connections decided to keep him on the Turf. Backtalk is 2-for-2 at Churchill Downs, but both wins were in sprint races. The distance is a question mark.

"Our job is to bring him to the Kentucky Derby and show that he's a good horse at this distance," trainer Tom Amoss said. "We want to show that we're competitive."

These are the long-shot runners, horses whose chances you have to wonder about. But after last year's upset, 50-1 shocker Mine That Bird, you can't count out anyone. So you talk to the guys like Mike Maker, trainer of 40-1 Blue Grass winner Stately Victor and Lane's End Stakes winner Dean's Kitten. You look at the horses like 17-1 Arkansas Derby winner Line of David. You wonder how good -- or how bad -- they're gonna run.

***

John Sadler has Line of David, one of the ones you watch because you just don't know. He also has Sidney's Candy, 5-1 on the morning line, who beat Lookin at Lucky in the Santa Anita Derby last time out. The outside post is a blow, to be certain, but you have to love the way the horse looks here in the mornings. Sadler took a contender to the Kentucky Derby back in 1993, Corby, who finished sixth. It's better this time, he said. He's got two chances, and although he has a good feeling about the last one and maybe a not-so-good feeling about the first, that's what happens when you have two horses entered in the same Kentucky Derby and one is training lights-out and the other is just … kind of training.

On Monday, Line of David turned in a less-than-lovely work in the slop at Churchill. Although the speedy colt blazed through early fractions, he had nothing left approaching the quarter pole. His rider scrubbed along like nothing you'd want to see on Derby week, and he was struggling through the later going.

"Sure, I'm disappointed," Sadler said. "He didn't work very well at all on that sealed track; he didn't like it one bit. It won't change anything, though. We'll just hope things pick up with the weather during the week and we have a fast track on Saturday."

The jolly Tom Proctor, who does not have a horse in the Derby, stood in the clockers' stand at the Lukas gap to commiserate.

"This game can make you feel old," he remarked. "But it can also make you feel young again. The worst thing is when you have a horse in the winner's circle and one up the track. You don't know how to feel!"

***

Those who like Gotham Stakes winner Awesome Act didn't know how to feel Tuesday when the colt turned in his final effort, a better work than his last, but one rather uninspiring nonetheless. He had been galloping around the oval about a length behind his workmate, stakes contender Peace Town, for several days. When it was time to turn on the heat in a final breeze, the duo ran neck-and-neck and Awesome Act galloped out strong, but his performance was nothing like the eye-catching moves of others.

Jockey Julien Leparoux met with the media outside Barn 36. He appeared calm and confident, but it was impossible to tell what he was really thinking. Reporters clustered under umbrellas and leaned closer to hear while he used vanilla words like "good," "smooth" and "nice" to describe the move.

"He usually doesn't gallop out strong, but he did that today, and he had no problem with the track," the slim Frenchman said.

Awesome Act looked tired and was blowing from the effort when he walked the shedrow after his work. Later, he stood with his back hunched, looked a little tired, head down to get his bath out in the rain.

"Hey, I'm standing here, looking tired, a little bunched up in the rain, too, so I can empathize," said Jay Privman, a columnist for Daily Racing Form.

One who has relished the rain is Paddy O'Prado, a big runner to whom the old legend "gray horse for a gray day" seems to apply. Trainer Dale Romans took one shot at the Derby, with Sharp Humor in 2006. Now he's back for more, and according to his brother, Jerry Romans Jr., things have gone swimmingly -- in almost the literal sense of the word.

"We wouldn't mind if it rained on Saturday," Jerry Romans said Tuesday morning, standing beneath the shelter of a shedrow awning as the water pelted down. "He loves the wet track; he's really coming into his own."

"Sensational" was how reporters described the colt's final move, :58 2/5 for five furlongs, ranked fastest of 21 moves last Friday. There's no question about how he handled the track this time. But first time out at Churchill on a sloppy track in 2009, he ran poorly. So what do you do with that?

The problem, clocker Mike Welsch said in his video report for Daily Racing Form, is that the surface has the potential to change so much between now and Saturday -- that it'll start drying out today and tomorrow with little rain in the forecast, but thunderstorms on Derby day could turn it to slop again. The surface these runners have worked on may not be the surface they run over on Derby day. It's hard to say how relevant the final preparations have been.

***

It is not raining now at Churchill Downs, but it had been raining, on and off, for the past 72 hours leading up to Draw Day. The pattern went like this: light precipitation, then a little heavier, enough of a break to get hopes up, then maybe it'll dry out after all, followed, of course, by more rain. Miserable. The forecast for Saturday calls for 77 percent chance of rain.

On Monday morning, Bob Baffert blew into the press center in search of coffee, water spots dotting his black jacket, trademark white hair damp and blown awry by the wind.

"This is just ridiculous," he said.

Baffert is a Hall of Fame trainer. He's won the Derby on three occasions: Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002. He had been out in the clockers' stand, surveying the land, ready to call an audible if the track condition was too muddy -- "like peanut butter" -- to risk a final work.

But the forecast was not favorable. It was just going to get worse. So Baffert's crew put the saddle on Lookin at Lucky, and exercise rider Dana Barns hopped aboard, and the big bay colt hauled her around the Churchill oval through five furlongs in 1:00.80.

The next day, Conveyance cruised through more rain, five furlongs in :59 4/5. He's a speedy runner, full of go. A Baffert kind of horse.

Baffert talks about Thoroughbreds like a non-racing guy talks about a Ferrari.

Standing by the rail Wednesday morning, he uttered two words that said it all: "He's fast!"

Allow him to expound: "He went good in his last work, he went around there and galloped out strong. He needs a little bit more; he's that type of horse. He's not a runaway, but he likes to be let alone. So we put a little zip into him, and he looks good today; that's all that matters."

Earlier in the week, before Lookin at Lucky's final move, Baffert had joked that he needed to get the breeze in so he could sleep at night. Asked if he really had trouble sleeping during Derby week, he responded with a typical wisecrack.

"I sleep good; I medicate," he joked. "No, really, I have trouble when I first get here because of the time change but you know what? I've come here for years. So I just train them up to it like it's a regular race."

Baffert, D. Wayne Lukas, Nick Zito, Dutrow have it down, sure. But that doesn't mean the Derby nerves aren't running high. On Tuesday, Lukas took a stand to defend his contender, Dublin, a son of Afleet Alex whose picture made the paper after he bolted twice toward the outside rail along the backstretch during a Sunday morning gallop. The infield was full of runners participating in the Louisville marathon at the time, and the Hall of Fame trainer felt his equine runner was unfairly represented.

"The publicity on that is totally, totally wrong," he lectured a member of the Churchill Downs notes team. "This horse is very manageable. But if you're going to send 4,000 screaming marathon runners out of the tunnel, he's going to take a look at that. My pony shied from that. The horse in front of him shied from that. He was the only one who got the publicity, [and] that's ridiculous!"

The notes, issued Tuesday morning, went on to quote the trainer on his horse's attributes. The all-time leader in Derby starters with 43, Lukas likes this one for his strength and ability. Because he has a long stride. Because he's a good stayer. Because he's a big, powerful horse who has tactical speed. Because he fits all of the parameters for the good ones.

"I feel very comfortable, probably more so than I have in a long time," he said.

Zito maintains a lower profile, preferring to play it cool. The good news is, if you don't win the Derby, you get up tomorrow and move on. Sure, it's the most prestigious race in the world, but losing it isn't the end of the world.

Zito saddles two starters in the Derby this year -- Florida Derby winner Ice Box, and Wood Memorial runner-up Jackson Bend. Ice Box was in like Flynn. Jackson Bend moved up a step when Rule, yet another Pletcher trainee, defected Monday.

Standing outside his barn with a Starbucks cup in hand, Zito tried to describe it. It's been 16 years since 1994, when he won Kentucky Derby 120 with Go For Gin.

"Look, we're in horse racing," he said. "It's the biggest show, that's what it is. Some people win it one time, and that's enough. But it's also the thing that keeps you going all year long. In 2004 we didn't win the Derby, but we won the Belmont Stakes with Birdstone in front of the largest crowd in Belmont history. In 2008 we didn't win the Derby, but we won the Belmont with Da 'Tara against Big Brown.

"One thing about the Derby, it's the biggest race of your career. Some people win one, and that's enough. The memories fade to a point, because we're getting older, but I remember my wins like it was yesterday. I remember all the hoopla before and after it. We just keep going. We're lucky and blessed just to have horses in the Derby. If we ever win a third -- it's been a long time between drinks, as they say -- we'll take it and thank God and get down on our hands and knees. This game will humble kings, as they say."

***

"So what would winning the Kentucky Derby mean to you?"

Eoin Harty hates this question, an impossibly hypothetical speculation he refuses to address. How can you explain what it feels like to scale Mount Everest, to take home an Olympic gold medal, without accomplishing such a thing? How do you answer until you really know?

Prompt discussion on any other topic -- how his horse is feeling, what he thinks about the weather -- and the trainer will gladly oblige. How would winning the Derby feel? Ask him Saturday evening, if he gets lucky.

It could happen. Harty thinks the horse he's bringing this year is legit, and he ought to know: He was Baffert's assistant in 1996 and 1997 when they won back-to-back editions with Silver Charm and Real Quiet. Training on his own in his trademark New York Yankees cap, he blames himself for a few experiments that didn't turn out quite right -- a trip over Polytrack, the use of blinkers -- but finds WinStar's American Lion in prime position off an Illinois Derby score in which the big chestnut colt "put it all together." On Monday, American Lion went through an easy five furlongs in 1:02 3/5 over the muddy track with jockey David Flores holding him under wraps the entire way.

"The first year, I thought that I had the real McCoy and we ended up having no luck," the trainer said of his initial independent Derby starter, Colonel John, sixth in 2008. "Last year we just came [with Mr. Hot Stuff, 15th] to be here, because we could. This year I definitely have another contender. He may not be the favorite, but he'll be in the thick of things."

These are the other horsemen who do not know what it's like to win the Derby: Maker; Ken McPeek; Noseda; Sadler; Barba; Romans; and, of course, Pletcher. The latter is, perhaps, the man who would most like to get the monkey off his back -- 0-for-24 with Derby starters, he'll have four chances to do so with Discreetly Mine; Mission Impazible; Super Saver; and John Greathouse's filly, Devil May Care.

Devil May Care is named after the 36th novel in the James Bond series, the plotline of which goes something like this: a ritual execution on the outskirts of Paris triggers a series of events designed to lead to global catastrophe, a narcotics tide threatens to engulf Britain, a British airliner disappears in Iraqi airspace, the thunder of war echoes throughout the Middle East, and James Bond must save the world. Here in real life, according to the owner, this filly could hold her own with any Bond girl.

"She'll take a nip out of you," Greathouse said. "And she's not one of those fillies where you get on the track and say, 'Oh, the poor little girl.' She can dish it out, believe me."

***

On Sunday morning, Chip Woolley stood near the backside press center. He came to Churchill from New Mexico last season and stole the Derby with a 50-1 shot named Mine That Bird in a rail-skimming ride under Calvin Borel. Mine That Bird won the Sunland Park Derby en route to his Run for the Roses. After he won in Louisville, the New Mexico race received Grade 3 status. That's how Endorsement had enough graded earnings to make it into the Kentucky Derby field.

"It feels good to make a difference in your local racing scene," the trainer said. "And being here brings back a lot of memories."

He doesn't have a horse this year, but he came back to soak in the atmosphere, something he really didn't get to do last season between trying not to look stupid and dealing with the pressure and the media and the whole wide-eyed wonder of the first-time Derby thing. He talked about winning No. 135 with Mine That Bird, and how he would have loved to have a string at Churchill this year, and how things just didn't work out that way, but that's OK; life goes on. He talked about reliving last year's vibrant memories, about earning a place in the annals of Derby history.

"You're always gonna be a part of it from now on," he said.

That, perhaps, is the reason people come to the Derby. Horsemen. Owners. Jockeys. Fans. Media members. Because this Saturday, a story will be written like no other, and history will be made.

And we'll be a part of it all.

Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the Thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse magazine, the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.