Monday Morning Line at Churchill Downs

Late on a rainy, dreary Sunday afternoon, thoughts drift through the years, remembering Derbys of the not-so-distant past.

A fond memory of the 1993 running with Sea Hero getting a golden trip up the rail as the field turned for home under Jerry Bailey has me scrambling for the past performances. I notice the horse blew out three furlongs in :36 3/5 on the Thursday before the Derby. Now that's old school.

A phone call to trainer Mack Miller in Versailles, Ky. is in order. His wife, Martha, answers. She disrupts him from watching golf on TV.

"I was just going out to put the car in the garage," he said. "It's raining like hell."

It's fun to talk racing with Mack. He never tires when talking about Sea Hero. Why should he?

The Paul Mellon homebred didn't show much in Florida in the winter of '92-93. Still, Miller pressed on, taking the colt from his base in near Aiken, S.C., north to Kentucky for the Blue Grass (gr. I).

"I asked Mr. Mellon if we could go," he said. "And he said, 'be my guest.' He ran a respectable fourth. He just responded to our climate and then when he ran that well, I asked Mr. Mellon if we could go on to the Derby, and he said, 'be my guest.'

"I stayed in Versailles and got up every morning and drove down," Miller said of Derby week. "It was terribly exciting. I have never been able to stand much excitement. I saw a lot of friends there that I'd known for a while. We really had a ball.

"Mr. Mellon came for the Derby, and he was excited. I don't think he knew what the impact of the Derby was on an owner and trainer, although he'd won the big races in England and France. He was very cool and calm. That helped me a lot."

Okay, Mack, now how about the workout. These days, nobody blows out three days before the race. The question doesn't stop him--he's in the zone.

"I didn't want to work him two days - or even the day - before the Derby because he was a very light horse," he said. "He couldn't take a lot of punishment. He had the constitution of a filly, if you want to know the truth. You had to be very careful with him."

One last Derby sidebar from Mack.

"During the running, I had a good pair of binoculars in New York, and I had an old beat-up pair in Aiken with me; and I brought those to Kentucky for the Derby," he said. "At about the five-eighths pole, I lost them; I couldn't get them refocused. I said 'Mr. Mellon, it doesn't look too good.' I could see the colors, and I could see he was beginning to close some ground. I got really excited and, when Jerry got through at he top of the stretch, I said 'Mr. Mellon, I think we're going to win the Derby.' It's just the most exciting time in your life if you're a horse trainer. It sure capped my career.

Regardless of your profession, there is always a brass ring. Mack Miller should have a stack of 'em on his mantle.

A concern of Miller's about the Derby is field size.

"I strongly object to having 18 and 19 horses run. I think you need to take the best 14 horses and use one starting gate; you'd be a lot better off," he said.

Trainer Steve Asmussen is concerned about the field size, noting off the past performances for this year's field, "A lot of people plan on having the exact same spot...and it's going to be taken."

But as for limiting the field, don't mess with the graded stakes earnings pre-requisite for entry.

"It means the horses in the race ran good and beat somebody at least some day," he said.

Asmussen plans on running both the grade II-winning Private Vow and Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) runner-up Storm Treasure in the Derby. Private Vow is scheduled to work Monday morning.

"My feelings with Private Vow is that he has pretty much seen everything there is to see and accepted them," the trainer said. "He has a very good mind to him. He ran on Breeders' Cup day, and the festivities didn't upset him."

Last year, Private Vow won the Futurity (gr. II) at Belmont Park while running alongside a loose horse down the stretch. In the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), his rein broke with John Velazquez aboard.

His 3-year-old debut came in the Rebel Stakes (gr. III) at Oaklawn, where he ran seventh. In his second start, he ran a solid third behind Lawyer Ron and Steppenwolfer in the Arkansas Derby (gr. II).

"I was disappointed in the Rebel, without a doubt," Asmussen said. "I thought he'd make a better showing, so I might be a little further behind on him that I want to be. The race he ran in the Arkansas Derby was the race I was expecting in the Rebel. He ran 10 lengths faster in the Arkansas Derby than he did in the Rebel.

"How much better is he going to run?" Asmussen asks.

That's why we're here...

Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin is hoping to run both of his colts--Jazil and Flashy Bull--in the Derby. Flashy Bull currently doesn't have the graded earnings to get in.

Jazil is owned by Sheikh Hamdan's Shadwell Stables. McLaughlin trained for Sheikh Hamdan for 10 years while he lived in Dubai and had a summer stable in New York.

Outside Barn 42, McLaughlin discusses Hamdan and drops the fact that he may come to Louisville to watch his horse run.

"He might come over for the first time, ever, to watch a live American race," he said. "It would mean a whole lot to the farm and all the people involved. It's great to have a runner, but to win it would be unbelievable.

"I spoke to him yesterday after we worked, and he asked for some encouragement," McLaughlin said. "Rick Nichols talks to him most of the time."

Nichols is vice president of Shadwell.

"He's been keeping him up to date with what's going on," he said. "And for him just to see the day, win or lose, would be unbelievable. It's a great experience."

McLaughlin should know. He was an assistant to D. Wayne Lukas in the mid '80s and early '90s and sent out his first Derby starter last year. Closing Argument grabbed the lead from Afleet Alex at the sixteenth pole, but was passed on the outside by Giacomo.

"They say, if you have the lead at the eighth pole in the Derby, you're the winner," he said. "We had the lead at the sixteenth pole."

McLaughlin was an assistant when Winning Colors won the first of four Derbys for Lukas back in the spring of '88.

"I watched the race in New York because we were running the division there," he said. "I watched in the Aqueduct receiving barn. It was the only time all of his assistants made a future book wager in Vegas. She was 30-1."