While trainer Mike Tomlinson will be saddling his first Kentucky Derby starter, he's no stranger to Churchill Downs--the former Oklahoman has been on the Kentucky circuit since 1996. However, he will be a stranger on the backside as his Derby hopeful is bedded down at Tomlinson's base at Trackside, Churchill Down's training facility a few miles down the road from the Twin Spires.
He'll attempt to grab the "big candy" for the first time with his Arkansas Derby (gr. II) winner, Sir Cherokee, for Kenneth T. Jones Jr.'s Domino Stud of Lexington.
Tomlinson was raised in Mustang, Okla., a suburb of Oklahoma City. He attended Southwest College on a baseball scholarship, then moved to Oklahoma State University, where he graduated in 1976. His hopes of professional baseball were dashed when the pitcher developed problems with his arm.
Like many of today's successful Thoroughbred trainers, Tomlinson "cut his teeth on quarter horses." He said they give a person a good basic education in horsemanship. "They help give you a good eye conformation-wise," he said.
His base was Remington Park, and he raced all over the southern Midwest in Arkansas and Louisiana and at Ellis Park in Kentucky, but when the purses, and the product, started to wane in Oklahoma, Tomlinson saw the writing on the wall.
"I wanted a location with a future," he said. "And Kentucky was one of those places. I wanted to be close to the breeders and be near the 'factories' where the horses come from."
He moved his family from Oklahoma to Kentucky, buying a 20-acre spread in Shelbyville, about 25 miles from Louisville. Tomlinson lives there now with his wife, Vicki, and three sons: Cole, 17; Cale, 15; and Cache, 11. While his stable is at Trackside, he travels to Lexington two to three times a week. It wasn't easy in the beginning.
"If we were going to play this game, we wanted to do it where we could be successful," he said. "Coming from the west, I was in a situation where I had to start all over again. It's been a struggle."
He and his horse will do just fine without the hubbub on the Churchill Downs backside Derby week. "The key to horses is rest and relaxation--and to keep them with their normal routine," he said. "He (Sir Cherokee) enjoys being over there. It's quiet, it's relaxing, it's a good environment."
Sir Cherokee, a bay son of Cherokee Run, out of the Last Tycoon mare La Cucina, won one of six starts as a 2-year-old. "All along, I thought he was a talented horse, but he's been a challenge to train," Tomlinson said. "He was immature and I told the owners not to expect much in his first few races." After breaking his maiden in his fifth start in November at Churchill Downs, he finished a credible fourth in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) to close out the meet.
This year at Oaklawn Park, he won a mile allowance race, then was fourth in both the Southwest and Rebel Stakes before coming from last to win the Arkansas Derby.
"I voiced my concerns to Caroline (Frazier, the general manager of Domino) and Mr. Jones and I wanted to keep him the way we'd kept him all along. I told them 'We were sharpening the blade in the Arkansas Derby to try to get the big candy.' "
Trackside is also the home of the Murray Johnson stable. The Johnson-trained Perfect Drift finished third in last year's Derby, and Tomlinson has been getting good advice from his neighbor. "He's had good success," Tomlinson said. "I'd like to duplicate that."
A year ago, a low-key Johnson went home to mow his lawn Derby Day before heading to Churchill Downs. Tomlinson said he'd do something similar, like get a hair cut. "I want to look good when I get my picture taken," he said with midwestern pride.
For being a first time Derby trainer, he certainly isn't intimidated or taking a backseat to anyone.
"You can talk about the Breeders' Cup or the Dubai Cup, but when you mention the Kentucky Derby, that's the top," he said. "This is where I want to be. I'm fortunate to get to this point in the six or seven years I've been here. There are a lot of good guys, good horse trainers, who don't have the luck to get here.
"It's been a new experience for me, but I'm not going to lie and say I don't want the attention. Everybody works to get to this point -- I'd be foolish to say I'm not going to enjoy it."
People following horse racing would also be foolish to not give Mike Tomlinson and Sir Cherokee a chance in Kentucky Derby 129.