LOUISVILLE, KY -- Let me tell you something about a Kentucky Derby contender.
Every horse, every single runner that enters the starting gate today, carries a thousand hopes and dreams upon his back.
Sure, you hear about his trainer and you read about his jockey. The owner's story is told, and maybe they'll write about the guy that bred the horse or picked him out at auction.
But you don't know about the groom and the hot walker, or whoever jumps in the saddle to exercise him every morning. You don't know about the blacksmith and the vet and the workers who taught him his first lessons as a young horse down in Florida or out in California, far before he ever made it to the racetrack.
All of these people waiting, rooting for him to win, have invested some part of their talent and ability into his talent and ability, enabling him to get to where he is today. And when the gates open on the 137th edition of this American classic, and 19 horses spring into action and the crowd goes wild, the behind-the-scenes people will watch and pray with a love for their individual runner cemented into their hearts and minds -- no matter how long the odds or how steep the challenge before them.
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Dan Blacker is one such contributor. You won't read about him in the papers apart from a casual mention when he gallops a runner, or if he makes a comment when trainer Tom Albertrani is away. To use European terminology, 29-year-old Blacker is somewhat of a "head traveling lad," an assistant who is based in New York and Florida but goes with the horses to different tracks when they're going to run. He works for Albertrani seven days per week, getting to the track long before dawn and often staying far into the afternoon to work with veterinarians and blacksmiths and to run horses in the races.
He wants to train his own string of thoroughbreds someday soon.
For the past week, ever since Kentucky Derby contender Brilliant Speed shipped to Churchill Downs, the English-born Blacker has been in the saddle in his forays around the track. He even breezed the son of Dynaformer on May 2 when his connections were looking for a relaxed, easy maintenance move heading toward his bid for Derby glory.
When I saw Barbaro win, I was like, 'I want to be a trainer in America, this is where I want to be.'
”-- Dan Blacker
Brilliant Speed is a dark horse, both literally and figuratively. No one really expected the bay colt to jump up and win the Blue Grass Stakes, which he did in determined fashion at Keeneland on April 16 at odds of 19-1. Not many expect him to win the Derby, either, when his best races have come over synthetic or turf courses. But those closest to the colt have always held high hopes for him based upon his pedigree, and he punched his ticket to this race with his late rally from last to first in the final furlongs of his most recent start. Terry Finley, whose West Point Thoroughbreds' King Congie ran third to Brilliant Speed in the Blue Grass, said he feels many have underestimated the colt's closing kick (he ran the last eighth of the race in :11.6).
"That was a powerful kick he put in when he came down the lane in the Blue Grass," Finley said. "I don't care what you're running on -- turf, Polytrack, dirt -- if you come home the way he did, you're dangerous."
For Blacker, being involved with a Derby contender is the realization of a dream that began several years ago in Oxfordshire. After graduating from the University of Edinburgh with a degree in environmental geosciences, he joined the Darley Flying Start (an educational international racing program) and came to America with one goal -- to train racehorses. In 2006 he was at Churchill to watch Barbaro -- also by Dynaformer -- win that year's edition of the race.
"When I saw Barbaro win, I was like, 'I want to be a trainer in America, this is where I want to be,'" he said. "But the Derby is obviously a fairy tale; you can't base your hopes and dreams on winning the Derby because more than likely it's never going to happen. It can be a dream and obviously a long-term goal, but realistically it's a longshot for a trainer."
Blacker is familiar with gut-wrenching disappointments along the Derby trail. Last year, another Blue Grass starter he galloped for Albertrani -- Tampa Bay Derby winner Odysseus – ran last in that race and came up with a bone chip that took him entirely out of the Derby picture.
"You don't want to say the 'D' word with a talented horse, but it's always on your mind," Blacker said. "If he's really good, he might make it, he might be the one that gets you there. You want every horse to perform well, you hope he gets into the Derby, and then boom, at the last minute, it gets taken away from you. We never even made it to Churchill."
Even this year, Albertrani thought he'd be headed to the Derby with Wood Memorial runner-up Arthur's Tale, but the colt got hurt coming out of that race and went to the sidelines. In contrast, the connections never really thought of Brilliant Speed as a Derby contender. They had him nominated to the race because they thought somewhere down the line he might win a big race, maybe, and you never know. They wanted to be ready to run.
"Odysseus was the buzz horse, and everyone was talking about him, so the pressure was on much more then," Blacker said. "Now we've sort of snuck in the back door, you know, and everyone's saying 'Oh, he's a turf horse,' so there's not as much pressure as last year, but we didn't get as close last year. Brilliant Speed has gone from being a Derby horse to being a live derby horse. I'm not hoping for slop, I'm not hoping for a fast track, it doesn't matter to him. He'll run on anything."
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A life in the Thoroughbred industry was in the cards for Blacker from his childhood. His father, former steeplechase jockey and equine artist Phillip Blacker who has made life-sized sculptures of horses such as Northern Dancer, Danehill and Sadler's Wells, and his mother, Susan, whose father Colin Davies was a successful steeplechase trainer in Wales, have been in touch all week to stay posted on developments with the Derby contender.
His girlfriend, TVG racing analyst Christina Olivares, will watch the race from California but was here earlier in the week to take part in some of the pre-Derby festivities.
"If I could sum him up, the one thing about Dan is that being good at something isn't good enough for him; he wants to be great at everything he does," Olivares said. "His enthusiasm for racing is also very infectious, and anybody who comes into contact with him knows how passionate he is about the game. When you combine that with the fact that he's willing to work hard, get up early, and do all the 'dirty work,' so to speak, you respect his work ethic and you love his passion and you want to be a part of that."
Albertrani hired Blacker two years ago when he came to the East coast from California, where he worked for Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella. His resume was also extensive in Europe, where he galloped for legendary British trainer Nicky Henderson and exercised 2004 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner Bago in his 2-year-old year -- all racing experience garnered after a time spent riding showjumpers before he turned 17.
"We have a couple of assistants but Dan has kind of been working his way up the ladder," said Albertrani, who began his career as an assistant to Hall of Famer Bill Mott. "I know his goal is to go out and train one day and I think the past couple of years have helped put a lot of experience underneath him. He's very focused and meticulous about everything and he's definitely got his mind set on what he wants to do later on. I think he will succeed."
Blacker said he doesn't know when he'll begin training independently, but he hopes it's soon. He needs an owner or two to start him out, to believe in him. But he's ambitious and ready to get going, and one day when someone gives him that opportunity, he'll grab it with both hands. Today's first step, to assist his boss in saddling this Derby contender, could eventually lead to a Derby contender of his own.
"I don't have statistics behind my name, I don't have big horses to say 'I trained this one, I trained that one,'" he said. "I've got nothing, I'm a blank sheet. But I want to train. It'll take someone that's a bit of a gambler but at the end of the day that's what racing is all about -- you've got to take a chance."
And that's exactly how Albertrani feels about Brilliant Speed.
"That's the most important thing, to give him a chance," he said. "I've always said, you keep your horses healthy and sound and let them do the rest. If they've got the talent, they're going to come through and win some big races."
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the Thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.