Derby Magic

The dark bay colt lay sprawled out in his stall, having a well-deserved rest following his brilliant victory in the previous day's Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I). A few minutes later, Vindication was up on his feet. He sauntered over to the webbing and greeted his visitor by sticking out his tongue, hoping the visitor would understand the request. A couple of tugs and a few shakes and he was content.

Bob Baffert not only has himself the hottest 2-year-old this side of Devil's Bag, he has one with a disposition that all trainers dream of. That hasn't been the norm for Baffert, who has had to contend with the antics of Point Given, War Emblem, Captain Steve, and General Challenge in recent years. But this time, there will be no rearing, no nicknames like Hannibal Lecter, and no flighty, erratic behavior. This time he's got the mind to go with the talent. More important, Baffert has an undefeated colt with a devastating turn of foot, and the pedigree to run from Arlington to Churchill Downs without taking a deep breath.

But Vindication is one horse who is not about Baffert. He is about a trio whose names will flow from people's mouths like the lyrics of "My Old Kentucky Home" on the first Saturday in May--Slew, Smith, and Satish. The three together have already stirred the forces that some refer to as the Derby gods.

Vindication has the aura of his recently deceased sire, Seattle Slew, glowing around him--physically as well as spiritually. A few more victories early next year and the storytellers will take pen in hand and prepare to write the saga of all Kentucky Derby sagas. The romantics will remain steadfast in their belief that the spirit of Seattle Slew now emanates from his son, as if some ethereal transfer had taken place on May 7, the date of Slew's death.

Mike Smith's career has undergone a major resurrection, and the ever-popular rider deserves it. It's great to see his perseverance and patience pay off following a near-career-ending injury, which resulted in a loss of clients and kept him out of the Breeders' Cup winner's circle for five years. Now he is back on top. Earlier in the day, the sight of Smith and Azeri gliding down the Arlington stretch so effortlessly and so in tune with each other brought goose bumps to even the most hardened observers.

Finally, talk about resurrections, how about Satish Sanan, who has put so much money into this game, and always rejoiced in the winner's circle celebrations of his trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, even though few were with his own horses. In 1998, Sanan fell in love with a Mr. Prospector colt at the Keeneland July sale, and wanted him badly. But, despite an alliance with Coolmore, he was outbid on the horse later to be known as Fusaichi Pegasus by Fusao Sekiguchi, who bought the colt for $4 million. The next day, Sanan called co-breeder and consignor Arthur Hancock and said, "Arthur, I wanted that damn horse."

I'll never forget walking back from the post-race Derby party in 2000 following Fusaichi Pegasus' victory. The huge crowd was filing toward the exits, and there making his way through the throng, walking by himself, was Sanan. All I could see was "what might have been" written on his face. But he, like Smith, kept an optimistic outlook, persevered, and ultimately restructured his operation.

Now, he and Smith are hoping to ride to Louisville however they can, whether it be on Seattle Slew's magic carpet or the Bob Baffert Express, which has already made three stops in the Churchill Downs winner's circle. Whichever way they get there, the journey will inspire one of the great chapters in Kentucky Derby lore.

If there is anything mystical that could possibly challenge the spirit of Slew it is the fairies of Tipperary, who right now are already plotting and scheming how to get Hold That Tiger back to America on the first Saturday in May.

Yes, it all sounds too good to be true, but when Derby fever starts affecting people so strongly in October, at least you know the magic has already begun.