In 1967, Churchill Downs, like the rest of the nation, was a different place. Growing tension surrounding the Vietnam War, and race riots that bespoke social division and strife, had the Louisville track looking like something its founders couldn't ever have envisioned.
"That was my first trip to the Kentucky Derby (gr. I)," said 83-year-old trainer Warren Stute, whose charm, wit, and humor has made him one of the most beloved participants in the 131st running of the classic.
"Those were the protest days, and the National Guard was all over the place," recalled the man who saddled the eventual 13th-place runner that day, Field Master, for Mr. and Mrs. Hal Seley. "I came reluctantly, at the owners' insistence. We were only fifth in the Golden Gate (Derby) and I just didn't feel that good about sending him."
Stute, who on Saturday will send out B. Wayne Hughes' 12-1 shot Greeley's Galaxy from post nine under Kent Desormeaux, is a man with few regrets. Should they win, Stute will become the oldest trainer in Derby history, eclipsing Charlie Whittingham who guided Sunday Silence to glory in 1989 at age 76.
Slowed by a series of minor strokes, and in only his second time on the Churchill backstretch, the conditioner is thinking he might have done things a little differently had he the chance to do it again.
"I never really had Derby fever," said Stute with a notably deliberate cadence suggesting his recent health problems, "and that's one of my life's great mistakes. I think it's too hard on the horses, and maybe I never had enough good horses. But I still think you should only come if you have a serious chance of winning."
The diminutive horseman first walked on to a track at Pomona Fair Grounds when he was 16, and started hot walking horses. "I made it as far as the ninth grade, so I figured I knew everything." Up until his third and last stroke, Stute exercised some of his own horses. "I was too big to be a jockey; I rode only one race in Arizona and I came in fourth. I though I'd start training and a man named Doc O'Connell had a racing stable and he must have been glad to get cheap help."
Stute still keeps his muscles fresh on his training pony, an ex-racehorse named Snoop. "When I looked out and saw him the other day on the pony I knew that's where he belonged," said his son Glen, who drove van carrying Greeley's Galaxy, son of Mr. Greeley, to Louisville following his 9-1/2-length romp in the Illinois Derby (gr. II).
Stute, from the old school of training, raised a few eyebrows when he worked his colt an unofficial 1 1/4 miles. "I wanted to run him in the Derby Trial last week but Mr. Hughes sent me to Chicago instead," he said of the owner he calls a close friend and who he still has breakfast with near the track several mornings a week. Asked how the two get along, Stute quickly replied, "fair."
Stute strings one-liner after one-liner outside his barn, entertaining the horde of credentialed media he is unaccustomed to seeing on most days, though he has saddled his share of winners on the West Coast. In 2001 he guided Go Go to a win in the A Gleam Handicap (gr. II) at Hollywood Park; in 2002 he readied Miss Houdini. who scored in the Del Mar Debutante Stakes (gr. I) at Del Mar; and in 2005 his Thatswhatimean ran first in the China Doll Santa Anita.
Stute recounts the story of the morning after his first stroke when a less than supportive fan walked up to him in a donut shop opining that "it's too bad you didn't die."
"I smacked him one. I think that's good for you after a stroke, it stirs you up"
Stute said he is enjoying all the attention. "It's a little different than 1967, my first time here, when I came with a long shot, but it's nice," said Stute. "Everybody I've met here has been very polite and nice to talk with. I'm having a good time.
"And actually, I've been looking for some of you guys (the media). Who has a Hall of Fame vote here? My brother Melvin (who saddled Derby runners Bold 'n Ruling in 1980 and Snow Chief in 1986) should be in the Hall of Fame. Two years ago you put in a dead guy over him. He was embarrassed, but I was mad."
Stute got his biggest laugh of the day with that one, and as the session ended after his colt's final workout on Wednesday, Stute was asked about the possibility of retirement.
"I'll never retire," was the answer. "Racing keeps you going."