While it is increasingly difficult to find a horse that stands tall above the competition in this year’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), there is an abundance of terrific human-interest stories surrounding Saturday’s Run for the Roses.
Poignant connections seem to pour forth from each Derby barn on the Churchill Downs backstretch. Over there in Barn 37 is 75-year-old owner/trainer Tom McCarthy capping a lifetime of work with horses by leading his one horse, General Quarters, to the track each morning, living a dream that’s long been brewing inside him.
Coming out of Barn 24 is young jockey Joe Talamo taking I Want Revenge out for his final Derby work. Talamo’s first Derby mount will likely go as the favorite come Saturday, and though he is keeping a cool exterior, you can bet the butterflies will be fluttering around Talamo’s stomach later this week.
How about Barn 45, where trainer Larry Jones gives an endless stream of interviews about what he’s gone through since the filly Eight Belles finished second in the race a year ago only to break down with a fatal injury past the wire. Jones, who has had the Derby runner-up two years in a row, has announced he is giving up his high-profile operation and taking some time off to spend with family and reboot his enthusiasm for working with Thoroughbreds. Jones’ clean reputation has been maligned by animal-rights activists who don’t know which end a horse eats with, and a victory Saturday by Friesan Fire would make for one helluva going-away party for the native Kentuckian.
Over at Barn 10A trainer Gary Stute, the son and nephew of legendary California trainers Mel and (the late) Warren Stute, respectively, prepares Papa Clem, his first Kentucky Derby starter. The horse was named by owner Bo Hirsch for his late father, Clement Hirsch, who was instrumental in forming the Oak Tree Racing Association, which has distributed millions of dollars to charities through the years, and the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. “Papa Clem” is what Clement Hirsch’s grandchildren used to call him, and his son waited until he got a horse he thought was good enough to honor his father. It appears he has chosen wisely.
Chocolate Candy over in Barn 42 comes complete with another great story. When Sid Craig, husband of diet guru Jenny Craig, was turning 60 in 1992, his wife wanted to buy him a horse that would run in the Kentucky Derby, except none could be found, so she bought him a filly that she thought could at least run in the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I). A week later, their trainer, Ron McAnally, found a colt named Dr Devious who finished seventh in the race before going to Europe and winning the English Derby (Eng-I) a month later. The filly became an afterthought—until now. Her name is Crownette, and she is the dam of Chocolate Candy. Sid Craig died last year, but Jenny will be at Churchill Downs to root on Chocolate Candy Saturday. “I know Sid will be riding that horse along with the jockey,” she said.
Bob Baffert, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in August, prepares Pioneerof the Nile for the big race, hoping to wrap up his Hall credentials with his fourth Kentucky Derby victory. And D. Wayne Lukas, already in the Hall of Fame and already in possession of four Kentucky Derby victories, is looking for number five when he sends out Flying Private. Ben Jones is the all-time leader with six wins.
Every horse has a story behind it, but this bunch seems to have a real literary flair that could well add to the lore of the world’s most famous horse race.