Racing's Holy Grail--The Epic Quest for the Kentucky Derby--Chapter 3

Editor's Note: Steve Haskin is an award-winning turf writer and senior correspondent for The Blood-Horse. During his 29 years with the Daily Racing Form, Haskin became known for his insightful coverage of the Triple Crown races. Haskin won the Red Smith Award for Kentucky Derby writing in 1997, 1999, and 2000.and received the David Woods Award for best Preakness story in 1997. In 1999, he co-authored "Baffert: Dirt Road to the Derby" with trainer Bob Baffert and wrote the books, "Dr. Fager" and "John Henry" for Eclipse Press'"Thoroughbred Legends" series. In his latest book, "Racing's Holy Grail - The Epic Quest for the Kentucky Derby," Haskin takes readers behind the scenes and into the trenches as he examines what it takes to win the world's most famous horse race. He plumbs the secrets of successful trainers, the common pitfalls that hinder so many others, and the enigmatic nature of the race itself. The following excerpt is from Chapter 3:

Chapter 3 -- The Men From The Boys

...I've seen many young, inexperienced trainers become unraveled on the road to Louisville, and some after arriving at Churchill Downs. It has nothing to do with their ability as trainers. It's just that the Kentucky Derby has a way of setting traps along the way, and unsuspecting, inexperienced trainers have less chance of avoiding them or dealing with them once they've fallen in. Two such trainers were Jim Ryerson and Randy Winick, both of whom came to Kentucky with extraordinarily talented horses. But when Unbridled's Song, the strong early Derby favorite in 1996, came out of the Wood Memorial with a foot problem, it created a circus atmosphere around Ryerson's barn, something he was not prepared to deal with. The young trainer tried to handle it, but it got out of control and created bad feelings between him and owner Ernie Paragallo.

Each day Churchill Downs officials had to set up a podium outside Ryerson's barn, where he would give a 10 a.m. press conference in front of a huddled mass of frozen reporters and TV and radio people. Ryerson had been to the Derby once before with longshot Meadow Flight, but in training the hot favorite, this kind of distraction is something very few trainers are equipped to handle.

It was bad enough that Ryerson had to deal with the quarter crack and a Z-bar shoe to protect it, but early in Derby Week the foot flared up, and veterinarians were called in to work frantically into the late afternoon. It eventually was decided to replace the Z-bar shoe with a more cumbersome egg-bar shoe, named, simply, for its egg shape. That night, fellow scribe Ed Fountaine and I were supposed to take Ryerson and Buzz Chace, Paragallo's bloodstock agent and adviser, out to dinner at Pat's Steak House. We had no idea what had happened, but the silence at dinner was so thick you could have cut it with one of Pat's steak knives. Buzz stared out the window the entire night, chain-smoking without saying a word.

Unbridled's Song, despite running in two egg-bar shoes, turned in an incredible performance, opening up a clear lead in 1:35 flat before tiring to finish fifth. He still was beaten less than four lengths, and a neck and a nose for third. Paragallo still fumes about the colt's going into battle wearing the two bar shoes. Would he have won or finished closer wearing a patch instead, something several blacksmiths felt he should have been wearing? Would a more experienced trainer have done things differently or kept in closer communication with the owner? Ryerson obviously was advised by reputable people, and he went along with it. As for the "what might have beens," you can throw them in the manure pile.

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