Sam P. turned in a sharp work earlier this week.<br><a target="blank" href="">Derby Works Photos</a>

Sam P. turned in a sharp work earlier this week.
Derby Works Photos

Garry Jones

Steve Haskin's Derby Report: Sam P. Trying to Get Over the Hump

Most people feel Sam P. has a high mountain to climb in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). But it’s not nearly as high as the human Sam P. climbed during World War II. So if you want a good story to root for, Sam P. could be your horse.

Sam P. is named for Sam P. Burton, the father of owner Jack Wolf’s longtime friend Bob Burton. Bob and Jack have been friends for 35 years and played football together at Murray State.

“Bob’s father, who everyone calls Sam P., has been like family,” Wolf said. “When we bought this horse at the Fasig-Tipton July yearling sale, Bob was with us, and he jumped up and shouted, ‘He has the same birthday as my father; you have to buy this horse.’ So, we wound up spending $200,000 for a Cat Thief.”

Wolf has always had a great deal of admiration for Bob’s father, who was what was known as a Hump pilot, an elite group of pilots known for their death-defying missions during the 1930s and ‘40s.

As part of the China National Aviation Corporation, Hump pilots played a significant role in the history of modern China. CNAC originally was a partnership between the Chinese government and the Curtiss-Wright corporation. Eventually, CNAC established the first air routes in China, connecting the commercial center of Shanghai with Canton, Peking, and the cities along the Yangtze River.

Through the Sino-Japanese war in 1937 and World War II, Hump pilots flew C-47 and C-46 transport planes over the Himalayas, carrying supplies, fuel, and soldiers between Burma, India, and China. Because of the lack of navigational technology back then, many planes never made it because of  severe weather conditions, such as ice and turbulence. Operating conditions were extremely hazardous because the airline was forced to fly under the worst possible circumstances to avoid Japanese attack. As a result, the mortality rate of Hump pilots was extremely high.

“We lost thousands of planes,” said Burton, who was a Hump pilot in 1943 and ‘44. “One time, they sent out 95 planes and lost 89 of them. The jet stream could be as strong as 150 miles an hour and there were no radio aids, so you didn’t know where you were. I was lucky. One night, we hit a bad thunderstorm, and the only thing that saved us was the fact that the plane was empty. We had already made our delivery and were returning. If we had been carrying a load we never would have made it.”

From April 1942, when the Burma Road was lost, to April 1945, CNAC made more than 35,000 trips over the Hump. In 1944 it flew almost 9,000 round trips, or 10 million miles, over this route, transporting approximately 35,000 tons of lend-lease, as well as strategic materials.

So appreciative were the Chinese that they invited all the remaining Hump pilots to China for a reunion, where they honored them for their heroism.

“The four-legged Sam P. has the two-legged Sam P.’s tenacity,” Wolf said. “Now, all we have to do is get him to win one of these big races.”

“Jack always said he was going to name a good horse after me,” the 87-year-old Burton said. “This has been quite an experience. The Lord willing and the creek don’t rise I’ll be at the Derby rooting on Sam P. I hope for Jack’s and Don’s (co-owner Lucarelli) sake they win it, because they’re wonderful people.”

Sam P. is one of the few battle-tested horses in this year’s Derby, having made eight starts, defeating Chelokee in an allowance race Churchill Downs last fall and finishing second to Great Hunter in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) and third in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I).

Trainer Todd Pletcher had added blinkers for the Santa Anita Derby, but that didn’t work out as hoped, so the blinkers will be removed for the Derby. Sam P., like his sire, is a tenacious grinder, who keeps coming at you. He’s not as brilliant as some of the others, but he’ll stay all day. His rider, Ramon Dominguez, has to keep after him and not give up hope if the colt loses position, because he will continue to build up momentum. And when many of the others start to tire in the final furlong, he will keep coming, so, it is important he remains in striking range. Sam P. will be a longshot, but he certainly has the credentials to make his presence felt. And you can be sure he’ll keep persevering. Much like his namesake.

Doings at the Downs

Street Sense made his first appearance on the track after two days of walking the shed and looked super, turning in a spirited gallop. As he did in Monday’s work, he was hitting the ground with authority, while moving along at a strong clip.

Dominican came out around 9 o’clock and was full of himself, galloping alongside stablemate Avenstoke, who had trainer Darrin Miller aboard. The son of El Corredor had his neck bowed and wanted to do a lot more. Miller also is thrilled with the progress Sedgefield has made in the past week, and couldn’t be happier with the way the son of Smart Strike is doing.

Curlin, as usual, looked like a powerhouse galloping, while stablemate Zanjero continues to impress with his works, gallops, and overall looks.