By Billy Reed
-- Aw rats, not again. That was my reaction. Vindication, the unbeaten 2-year-old champion male and favorite for the 129th Kentucky Derby, will miss the world's most coveted race because of a strained ligament in his right foreleg.
I wasn't surprised. So many juvenile champions and solid favorites have been knocked off the Derby trail during my 39 years of covering the race that it's almost an upset when one of them actually makes it into the starting gate at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.
So as I watched tapes of trainer Bob Baffert breaking the news to the media, a list of names began to crawl across the space at the bottom of my mind's TV screen: Hoist the Flag...Lord Avie...Roving Boy...Tasso...Gilded Time...Dehere...Boston Harbor. I remember the disappointment I felt when each was eliminated by either illness or injury.
I had been high on Vindication since I saw him come from far off the pace to blow away the field in the Kentucky Cup Juvenile. I bet him back in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and he vindicated my faith in him by dominating his field and paying a tidy $10.20 for a $2 win bet.
But I admit that I also had a sentimental reason for liking him. His sire, Seattle Slew, who died less than a year ago, was one of my all-time favorites. I covered him in the '77 Wood Memorial and all his Triple Crown races, and I have a souvenir $2 win ticket from each race to prove it. He's still the only horse to win the Triple Crown while still unbeaten.
I was hoping Vindication would be another Slew. Instead, he turned out to be another Event of the Year, the unbeaten son of Slew who dropped out of the Derby picture in 1998 after being injured at Churchilll Downs less than two weeks before the race.
Fortunately for Baffert, he has some talented backups, led by Kafwain, who was second to Vindication in the Breeders' Cup. That's the way it is with the large stables. When they lose a star, they just go to the bench. Or when the star fails to shine on Derby Day, they've got a backup. Both of legendary trainer Woody Stephens' Derby wins (Cannonade in 1974 and Swale in 1984) came with horses that were deemed to be his second-stringers.
Heck, that's exactly what happened to Baffert when he won the '98 Derby with Real Quiet, who went into the race overshadowed by glamorous stablemate Indian Charlie.
I hate it when any trainer loses a Derby candidate. But at least Baffert, who has won the Derby three times in the last six years, should be able to absorb the blow emotionally better than a little-known trainer who suddenly finds himself jerked out of obscurity by the horse of his lifetime.
Most Derby fans recognize the names of trainers Billy Turner and Bud Delp, because everything worked out well with their horses of a lifetime (Slew for Turner, Spectacular Bid for Delp). But only serious Derby historians remember the names of Sidney Watters, Danny Perlsweig, John Tammaro, Dominic Imprescia, Joe Manzi, Darrell Vienna, and Reynaldo Nobles. Each got his 15 minutes of fame by training a juvenile champion or solid Derby favorite. Each also dropped back into the shadows after his horse fell by the wayside.
Fortunately, Vindication apparently will have the chance to vindicate himself. His role model should be A.P. Indy, the '92 Derby favorite trainer Neil Drysdale scratched the morning of the race because of a minor physical problem. That decision proved to be prudent when the colt recovered to win the Belmont, Breeders' Cup Classic, and Horse of the Year trophy.
There's just one thing I don't understand.
From 1964, when I got on the Derby trail, to 1980, the juvenile champion failed to make the Derby only four times. But from 1981 through right now, the juvenile champion has missed the Derby due to injury or illness 12 times.
What's strange is that in the last 15 years or so, trainers have coddled their Derby horses far more than the old-timers, giving them fewer starts and more time between races. I liked it better in the '60s and '70s.That's why I was warming up to Toccet, who last year raced eight times.
Now recovering from an injury himself, Toccet's chances of making the Derby are dicey, at best. But if he does win the roses, it certainly would be, well, vindication for the old-time way of getting a horse ready for the Derby.Billy Reed is a freelance writer based in Louisville, Ky.