Saturday, May 2, 2009

Reprise: Riders Up!

It's that time of year again when I am distracted by funky names, post assignments, sound conformation and compelling stories and then subject you, dear readers, to it too! Today is the 135th running of the Kentucky Derby and the 25th time that I have reveled in Louisville University's rendition of "My Old Kentucky Home," thrilled to the bugle fanfare, crossed my fingers at the "Riders up!" and held my breath for two minutes minutes as fragile three year old horses and skilled jockeys hurtle themselves down the one and a quarter miles at Churchill Downs.

My favorite aspect of horse racing, aside from the visceral magnificence of the animals themselves, is the moving back stories of either horse, jockey, trainer or owner. It seems every year is a tale from knacker (horse meat man) to track or a 93 year old lady who has dreamed of having a race horse her whole life and finally gets a Derby colt. Call me a softie, but I love those kinds of stories. This year does not disappoint as it offers the combination of an everyman's hero of a horse and his tenacious owner/trainer. So indulge me. It's Derby time!

First of all, you must know that horse racing is big business. It is a commercial enterprise where horses are bred for speed, trained by folks who answer to wealthy owners. Trainers' careers rest on being able to land big purses in the right races creating horses that command even larger stud or brood fees. And if racing is a hobby, it is the pastime of sheiks, not school teachers, since Derby horses are bought and sold for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars. They are more expensive than the finest cars, not the price of a Taurus. That is the backdrop for our story.

In 1955, a college student hopped a bus, went to his first Kentucky Derby, watched Swaps beat Nashua and a love affair was born. Since 1962 Tom McCarthy has dabbled in racing, a racket he loved, but that never loved him back. Retired as a high school principal since 1990, McCarthy has been racing in obscurity rising at 3 a.m. to go to the track, working his one or two horses, then leaving for school by 7, nobody paying him any attention. In all that time, he never won so much as a stakes race. None of McCarthy's horses have ever been very good and in the nearly half century he has been racing, he has only won a total of $229,020 in purses. That has all changed with General Quarters, the star of McCarthy's barn, the only horse in McCarthy's barn.

McCarthy saw him first in 2007, as a gangly one year old colt at the Keeneland Auction where the most expensive horse of the day went for $3.7 million. McCarthy had to bow out of the bidding when it rose over his ceiling of $20,000 and that was the last he thought of the leggy grey fellow with the white diamond splashed across his face. In fact their paths crossed again at a claims race where the winner could be purchased for the price of the purse. The winner? The grey colt now a little more grown up and dubbed General Quarters. The purse? $20,000. The luck of the Irish was with McCarthy that day because two other claimers wanted him, but McCarthy won the "shake" when his form was drawn. General Quarters was his.

McCarthy, 75, is nothing but patient. He is in no hurry. He is an unglamorous, old fashioned trainer in a fast-paced, glitzy world. He says that as a young trainer he lacked the finesse to be successful. With General Quarters, he was determined to rush nothing. "When he was a 2-year-old, he was very anxious," McCarthy says. "I just had to slow him down and begin to allow him to grow up and get away from all this fast and strenuous work. So I just let him go along and grow. I thought I had something that was fairly nice and I was in no hurry. That's the patience I've learned after so long. ... You've got to take your time, and with this one, I did."

And he still does. McCarthy is the hot walker, stall mucker, groom, masseuse, trainer, owner. He slips his pocket knife out each morning and slices a carrot into General Quarters' feed and an apple into his dinner rations. He is a throwback to the days of Seabiscuit where a small team brought an unlikely horse into the hearts of Depression-weary America. Rival trainers with dozens of horses to keep track of walk by his barn and see a horseman who lavishes attention on his lone colt the way they wish they still could. After the post-position draw, Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, who's won more races at Churchill Downs than anyone else, introduced himself to McCarthy, looked him in the eye and said, "You're a natural. Good luck."

McCarthy stood there for a moment and took in the scene. Around him, the rich and the powerful milled about in suits and expensive cowboy boots, swapping stories about the vagaries of running operations he could only dream about. McCarthy was still wearing the while polo shirt he had on early in the morning, spotted with flecks of blood and mud as he massaged his horse, filled his own feed buckets and even raked the gravel outside a rented stall. "I've seen this race come and I've seen it go," he said finally, a note of wonderment softening the usual gruff tone. "But I've never been a part of it before."

In a cut-throat industry where trainers have eyes only for their own charges, McCarthy is a sentimental favorite. "Here we all thought it was just some principal who hit the lottery, and it turns out he was training quarterhorses with an uncle at Rillito Park in Tucson before I was even born," Hall of Fame trainer and three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert says. "How cool would it be if he won?"

How cool indeed. In a world where cash is king, McCarthy has been offered millions of dollars for General Quarters. He said he hasn't been tempted."I told one guy, I can't sell my dream," McCarthy said.

So this morning in the cool mists of the Churchill Downs backside, if you were to meander past Barn 37, you might see this: "There's only the hint of a shake in his hands as he pulls the leather straps up from under the belly and buckles them, before turning to the bridle. The colt's blanket lies folded to the side. It's not the typical garment of a Kentucky Derby horse. Worn thin, the orange wrap was red when McCarthy's kids gave it to him years ago. On each side is sewn a rectangular nylon patch to hide the name of a horse that wore it previously. A peek inside reveals the name, Silent Victory." Before this year, those were the only kinds of victories McCarthy knew.

So join me today to root for the longshot because today, millions of dollars worth of thoroughbred horses will go to the post in the 135th Kentucky Derby. And McCarthy will be there, too, with his $20,000 claimer and a million-dollar smile.

Other Derby News:

  • In addition to rooting for General Quarters, I also like Dunkirk. "General Quarters" is the call to battle stations on a US Navy ship and Dunkirk was the site of an epic WWII struggle, so aside from the compelling Cinderella tale, how could I not root for those two?
  • I think Pioneerof the Nile (correct spelling with the "of" not spaced-funky names, remember?) also has a good chance.
  • Friesan Fire out of Eight Belles' stable will be the final Derby entry for trainer Larry Jones. He's had enough and wants to spend time with his grandchildren.
  • There will be a brief memorial time to remember Eight Belles, last year's second place finisher who tragically outran her legs and died on the track.
  • A new bronze memorial to Barbaro will be unveiled.
  • The nineteen horse field is a big one and for that reason, dangerous. Track conditions are expected to be wet, so it could be anybody's race and a real nail biter. Fingers crossed for safe trips for everyone.
  • I Want Revenge, the 3-1 morning line favorite, was scratched just hours before the run for the roses.
  • All this and mint juleps, big hats and gorgeous horses too? And you ask why I love horse racing?

Full disclosure: Under normal circumstances writing on this blog is 100% my own (or credited otherwise). Due to this being my final day of the semester, with a large project due and wanting to post this before the Derby start time, I selected a few quotes from other sources. Since this is not a term paper, they are not cited. And since about five people read this, I don't think anyone will care. If you do, contact me.

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