The annual Kentucky Derby (gr. I) trainer's dinner brought out a mixture of memories and laughs from conditioners past and present.
As usual, spectators were offered a glance at the past performances of the horses that brought the trainers to the big dance.
One moment included Derby veteran Beverly Lewis remarking about the chances of the Bob Baffert-trained Point Determined. "If this horse wins the Derby, then we'll know who did it," said Lewis, whose husband, Bob, died earlier this year.
Another moment had newcomer Mark Casse, who will saddle Seaside Retreat, say, "Of all the places I've raced, there is no place like Churchill Downs and going to the Derby is a dream come true."
It was difficult for another newcomer, trainer Dan Hendricks, who will saddle top contender Brother Derek, to put the experience into words. "To be in this position with one of the Derby favorites -- I can't explain it. I'm just happy to be here."
Hendricks stunned hosts Chris Lincoln and Paul Rogers and gave the crowd a laugh by remarking how Brother Derek hated the Churchill Downs surface and wasn't training up to par. He quickly shifted gears and said his runner was training well over the surface. "He shipped fine and everything is going wonderful," Hendricks said with a laugh.
Hoping for a repeat of last year's Derby is trainer John Shirreffs, who sent out Giacomo to upset the 2005 Run for Roses. This year he will saddle A. P. Warrior in this year's renewal. "Life has been great since last year," he said. "Anytime someone brings up the Kentucky Derby I get a huge smile. I have a photo of Giacomo in my back pocket if anybody wants to see him. Some people have their kids and I have Giacomo."
In addition to hearing from the trainers, the evening also honored Tom Meeker, chief executive officer and president of Churchill Downs Inc., and awarded Sheriffs the Derby trainer's trophy. Tracy Farmer was presented with the William T. Young Humanitarian Award.
Shirreffs, sporting his Derby tie from last year, said even though Giacomo was 50-1, they felt like they were the favorite. "Tom Meeker really took care of us. Being in this race was exciting and we really appreciated everything he did for us," he said.
Meeker's current employment contract expires in March 2007 but has stated he could retire before that time if a replacement is found.
"What a wonderful, wonderful trip it's been over the years," he said. "It's helped me understand the essence of racing. I understand why so many people fall in love with it. There is something special about it.
"Our job is to make this week (Derby week) one of the most memorable experiences in racing."
Meeker was honored with a video tribute honoring his accomplishments during his 22 years with Churchill Downs.