On May 3, trainers of the 20 horses that will go to post in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) will be stiff competitors.
But four days before the Saturday race, most of the trainers with horses in the classic shared a stage and a laugh or two at the annual Kentucky Derby Trainers Dinner hosted by the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders' Association. Missing from the engagement were Bob Baffert, who begged off because he had to pick up wife, Jill, at the airport, and Steve Asmussen.
The dinner mixed videos of the Derby starters with insights from their trainers and observations that at times were humorous and at other times quite serious. Co-emcees Paul Rogers and Jill Byrne kept the conversations lively and the pace flowing throughout the dinner.
For example, when Todd Pletcher, with four Derby starters, was joined on-stage by the lesser-known Billy Gowan, comparisons were made between the high-powered operation of multiple Eclipse Award winner and the trainer whose small stable has been resurrected by the success of Ride On Curlin. After Rogers noted that Pletcher-trained Danza had defeated Ride On Curlin handily in the Arkansas Derby (gr. I), he asked Gowan about his success rate against Pletcher and how he rated his chances Saturday.
"I don't know if I can beat him at all," Gowan said. "I think I have beaten him one time in about 20 starts."
To the delight of the crowd, Rogers responded, "If you beat him this time you will be tied with him for Derby winners," jokingly referring to Pletcher having one win in 2010 with Super Saver from 36 starters.
Another trainer whose humor resonated with the audience was Churchill Downs-based Dale Romans, who has third-place finishes with Paddy O'Prado and Dullahan from four Derby starters. Noting that he has been uncharacteristically on edge this week, Romans, who will send out Medal Count, said he finally went to see a doctor friend in the belief he would give him some medication to calm him.
"He wrote, 'Prescription for Dale Romans: Win the Kentucky Derby'," Romans said.
Jimmy Jerkens, the son of legendary trainer and Hall of Famer Allen Jerkens, was asked what his father had said about the younger Jerkens being on the Derby trail with TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial (gr. I) winner Wicked Strong.
"He said, 'It's going to be a pain in the ass. I don't know why you guys didn't go in the Peter Pan (gr. II) and then the Belmont (gr. I),' " Jimmy said of the comment by his father, famously known for his workmanlike, no-nonsense attitude.
On the serious side of the dinner, some of the night's biggest applause came after trainer Gary Contessa said Chip McEwen, whose Wounded Warrior Stables campaigns Uncle Sigh and donates 10% of earnings to the Wounded Warrior Project to help injured veterans, would have some of the wounded service members at the Derby.
Of course, dinner coordinators saved the best for last, with 77-year-old Art Sherman, who conditions favored Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) winner California Chrome, fondly remembering his last visit to Churchill Downs when he was exercise rider for 1955 Derby winner Swaps.
"My trip (to Louisville on a flight with other trainers and a jockey) was a little more fun this time," said Sherman, who rode a train to Louisville for Swaps' Derby. "I enjoy Kentucky so much and am very proud to be here."
Of California Chrome's winning margins of at least five lengths in each of his last four starts, all in stakes company, Sherman said, "He kind of spooks me. He's my California rock star.
"Everyone knows that with a good horse, there is something special. I noticed when he turned 3 there was a big difference."
Before the trainers took the stage, KTA president Clifford Barry drew applause when he reminded the attendees that "we owe a special debt of gratitude to these equine athletes...who are a very special part of our lives."
Shug McGaughey, the honored guest at the dinner in honor of his 2013 Derby victory with Orb , was unable to attend after being delayed in his trip to Louisville.