An interview with Benny Stutts Jr. was the highlight of the annual Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners' and Breeders' Association's Derby trainers' dinner, as the 70-year-old trainer expressed his delight at preparing to saddle his first Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) starter - Mount Joy Stables' Smooth Air.
Held in the Hyatt Regency ballroom in downtown Louisville, the dinner was attended by top trainers and industry figures including the connections of Big Brown, Monba, Anak Nakal, Smooth Air, Tale of Ekati, Visionaire, and Z Humor, to name a few.
The emcees for the evening were Paul Rogers and Chris Lincoln, both of whom kept the post-dinner interviews light and entertaining.
Bloodstock agent Davant Latham, past president of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Managers' Club, accepted the W. T. Young Humanitarian Award on behalf of the Lexington-based organization, which contributes to racing through education and financial support of valuable charities in the Kentucky area, as well as through a much-needed collostrum bank.
Stutts, however, stole the show with his moving description of his experience as a first-time Derby trainer with the best horse he's ever had in his stable.
"When I first got this horse I was thinking about (running him in) the Spring Stallion Stakes at Calder," he said. "I had no idea he would take us to this level. I've won four stakes races in my career as a trainer, all for Mount Joy Stables, so I have to tell you , I'm here because of the horse and because of that family who owns him. The last time I was here was in 1959. My dad was training horses and I watched the Derby from the roof of a car on the backside. I had no idea I'd be back with a starter of my own."
Another highlight of the evening was a video tribute to trainer Carl Nafzger, the evening's guest of honor and trainer of 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense. Following the video and a subsequent speech by Nafzger, who will be inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame this year, the audience gave a standing ovation.
The 2008 Derby-bound trainers were then brought to the stage to speak about their contenders for Saturday's race. An interesting topic of conversation for many trainers was the switch rom a synthetic surface to the dirt track at Churchill.
Eoin Harty, trainer of WinStar Farm's Colonel John, recalled his days as an assistant for trainer Bob Baffert and expressed his pleasure at his colt's progression. Colonel John, based in California, has not yet raced over a traditional dirt surface.
"I think he's adapted to the dirt track very well, and he worked fast and went well over it the other day, which is all I can base my opinion on," he said. "Based on that, I'd say I'm very confident in him going into Saturday."
Trainer James Kasparoff spoke of Bob Black Jack's ability to route, although the versatile colt also holds the world record for six furlongs (1:06.53).
"When I got him I thought he was more of a route horse, he's just built that way," Kasparoff said. "When I stretched him out the first time he was able to sit there and showed a different dimension. I think he'll go the distance and I think he's happy to be here."
Trainer Michael Matz, last year's guest of honor, spoke of taking the Derby trail with Visionaire after winning the 2006 Derby with Barbaro. Matz did not have a Derby starter in 2007; his main hopeful — Chelokee — was sidelined with physical issues and missed the race.
"This horse (Visionaire) tries his best every time, so we'll just hope for the best," he said. "When we had Barbaro, everything just kind of fell into place. With Chelokee last year, it seemed like it was problem after problem. This year, the horse seems to be following the same successful pattern, so we'll see."