They may not be pleasant subjects -- death, a tragic plane crash, and a serious motorcycle accident -- but the story lines surrounding several of this year's leading Triple Crown contenders promise to add a measure of emotion and high drama to what is always a compelling afternoon.
It certainly will be an emotional day for the friends and family of the late James T. Hines Jr., the breeder and owner of Lawyer Ron, the probable favorite for the May 6 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) presented by Yum! Brands. Hines died in his Owensboro, Ky., home Feb. 21, four days before his Langfuhr colt won the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park, where he added later victories in the Rebel Stakes (gr. III) and Arkansas Derby (gr. II).
Lawyer Ron is trained by veteran Bob Holthus, whose best Kentucky Derby finisher among four starters was Proper Reality, fourth behind Winning Colors in 1988. Holthus is one of the Midwest's most respected trainers and a victory by Lawyer Ron would be a popular one among his peers.
A win by Brother Derek would lift the spirits of trainer Dan Hendricks, who has carried on with determination and dignity after being paralyzed from the waist down in a July 2004 motocross accident in Southern California. His family and members of the racing community rallied around Hendricks and provided support when he needed it most. Foremost among those supporters was Canadian Cecil Peacock, the owner of Brother Derek, a Benchmark colt who goes into the Derby off four consecutive graded stakes victories, the most recent in the April 8 Santa Anita Derby (gr. I).
Michael Matz may not consider his own actions heroic when he helped three young children out of the wreckage of United Airlines Flight 232 after it crashed in Sioux City, Iowa, in July 1989. More than 100 lives were lost on a horrible day that Matz prefers not to revisit, something that will be unavoidable under the spotlight of the national media as the Derby approaches.
But Matz is a hero, according to Melissa Radcliffe, one of the three siblings Matz pulled to safety from the United jet (The Final Turn). She and her two brothers will be at Churchill Downs cheering for the Matz-trained Barbaro, the Dynaformer colt who ran his record to a perfect five-for-five in the Florida Derby (gr. I) April 1. Someone who won't be in Louisville and will be sorely missed at this 132nd Kentucky Derby is Bob Lewis. The two-time Derby-winning owner, whose joyride through life was shared with his wife, Beverly, died Feb. 17 at the age of 81. That same day, Point Determined carried the green and yellow Lewis silks to victory in an allowance race at Golden Gate Fields, signaling the Point Given colt's readiness for stakes competition. He subsequently finished second in two graded stakes, most recently behind Brother Derek in the Santa Anita Derby. Beverly Lewis, with help from son Jeff, is carrying on with the stable she and her late husband so enthusiastically developed. Point Determined will be a longshot, but it's a safe bet you wouldn't find a dry eye in the Derby winner's circle if he pulls off an upset. There likely will be 16 other horses in the starting gate come Derby day, and dozens of additional story lines to go with them. But the stories of James Hines Jr., Michael Matz, Dan Hendricks, and Bob Lewis--along with the horses representing them--will be told, over and over, in daily newspapers and on the airwaves as Derby Day approaches. They're all different, some representing the best of the human spirit and others mere sadness, but every story contributes to the richness of this most distinctive American sporting event, the Kentucky Derby.