May the best horse win

Chip Woolley was able to find the Churchill Downs winner's circle in his first trip to the Kentucky Derby thanks in part to the experience of jockey Calvin Borel. AP Photo/Ed Reinke

For many years, the post-Derby winner's circle at Churchill Downs was horse racing's Amber Room, its sanctum sanctorum, a sacred and rarefied place that only the most respected and accomplished and experienced horsemen ever could enter. The passkey would only turn, or so it seemed, with the torque of some esoteric or arcane knowledge held in strictest confidence and passed along in pre-dawn whispers on the backstretch berm of Churchill Downs, but just to a chosen few, ordained by their inexhaustible dedication and devotion.

Over three decades, starting in 1972, trainers who either had a plaque in the sport's Hall of Fame or would soon have one saddled 23 Kentucky Derby winners. This was no country for young, inexperienced men, this hallowed winner's circle. Trainers such as Charlie Whittingham, Laz Barrera, Woody Stephens, Mack Miller, LeRoy Jolley, Jack Van Berg and Nick Zito won this most famous of races, men whose lives unfurled a furlong at a time. And then D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert seemed to control the key, passing it back and forth between them. Yes, they're all in the Hall of Fame.

And so, based on that evidence and that history, with an inductive leap and a deductive syllogism, you could be fairly confident that the Kentucky Derby winner is running this week, either Wednesday at Gulfstream Park in Florida or Saturday at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey will saddle highly regarded Honor Code for his much anticipated seasonal debut Wednesday. A few days later, Lukas will send out Strong Mandate in the Rebel Stakes, where Steve Asmussen, a finalist on the Hall of Fame ballot this year, will saddle Tapiture.

A Kentucky Derby victory is usually reserved for Hall of Fame trainers and future Hall of Famers. This week, three such trainers will saddle three of the most prominent Kentucky Derby contenders; therefore, the roseate winner is probably running this week. That's the reasoning. But, of course, it's specious. The past decade tears that reasoning up into little pieces and then tosses them into the maelstrom of modernity.

Kentucky Derby rookies trained Mine That Bird (2009), Big Brown (2008), Barbaro (2006), Giacomo (2005), Smarty Jones (2004) and Funny Cide (2003). Trainers who never had saddled a horse in the Derby or, in some cases, at Churchill Downs suddenly appeared there and without ever having sung "My Old Kentucky Home" before they somehow grabbed the roses.


Lukas There's a learning process ... There's no how-to book on the Derby. But I think every year now is a new deal.

"-- Trainer D. Wayne Lukas

How could that happen? Has the Kentucky Derby become so publicized and so visible that you can learn how to get there and win just by watching and absorbing? Or, more likely, has the Derby, like everything else in American culture, for better and for worse, become more democratized? Attending the Kentucky Derby is on every sports fan's bucket list; winning it is on every horseman's.

When Affirmed, the last Triple Crown winner, won his Derby, he defeated 10 horses. Today, he'd probably have to defeat 19. The Derby has become the summit of every horseman's dream.

Not too long ago, most of the horses in the Derby were racing for their breeders. Today's Derby horses are more likely to have passed through a sales ring. Once upon not too distant a time, an owner-breeder had to spend many patient years in getting a horse to the Derby. Now, an owner can run down to the sale and buy a Derby horse, or the possibility, maybe the fantasy, of one. And so everybody wants to win the Derby, and everybody, even more remarkably, thinks he or she can. The capacity for delusion has never been greater.

The result is a large, crowded Kentucky Derby field that leads to the sort of troubled trips that inevitably compromise some horses, and the carnival atmosphere surrounding the race can unhinge others. In other words, just about anything can happen in the modern Kentucky Derby.

"It's become an event, not just a horse race," Asmussen said about the Kentucky Derby.

Still, experience in getting there, to Churchill Downs on that first of May's Saturdays with a contender, remains important. Shug McGaughey said he learned "plenty" last year while guiding Orb to Churchill and winning the Derby with the handsome colt. Everything, the trainer said, "went right" with Orb and his preparation leading up to the Derby. He never missed a workout, never missed a day of training, never had a setback, and so he was ready for a peak effort when he arrived in Louisville.

Partly because of that experience, McGaughey realizes how fragile Honor Code's schedule has become. He, of course, missed about three weeks of training because of ankle issues. Having missed the Fountain of Youth, which had been picked out for his return, he'll make his seasonal debut Wednesday instead, in an allowance race, where his trainer can evaluate him and determine the next step.

"I know it can't happen again," McGaughey said about Honor Code's missed training. "He can't have another setback. These horses have to come along and mature [if they're going to get to the Derby]. If we get there, we get there; if we don't, we don't."

Lukas has won four Kentucky Derbies and 14 Triple Crown races, more than any other trainer in the history of the sport. Today, at 78, he said he's a much better trainer than he was when he won his first Derby, in 1988, with Winning Colors.

"Years ago, I would win all the preps and get beat in the big one," he said. "There's a learning process. There's no how-to book on the Derby. But I think every year now is a new deal. You can't go into a year thinking you have this thing figured out. These horses teach you something every day. And as I've gotten older I think I've developed a better feel for, well, for everything. The horse is the key. But experience is very important. I don't think it's coincidental that the same guys keep showing up for the big races."

A trainer's experience can perhaps smooth out the journey to Kentucky, cut off some problems before they arrive or catch them before they grow. Experience understands the importance of timing, of striking that singular moment squarely. For the horses on the road to Kentucky, their trainers' experience remains very important indeed, even while many other factors and vicissitudes can intrude with increasing regularity and effect. But one factor always has been and always will be preeminent.

"Experience is very important," said Asmussen, who was second in the Derby with Nehro and third with Curlin, "but no experience can overcome the vastly superior racehorse."

The elite trainers, the guys with plaques in Saratoga Springs, once seemed to own the secret for getting into the post-Derby winner's circle. But the most reliable passkey is, quite simply, the best horse.