The Kentucky Derby Trainers' Dinner, a staple of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) week's festivities, gives the city of Louisville a sneak peak at the connections of the horses running in the Derby and also provides a chance for the trainers to let off some steam and laugh a little.
This year's renewal, held May 2 at the Hyatt Regency in downtown, was no exception...and saved it's best for first this year. Trainer Mike Maker, generally reserved and soft-spoken, got the ball rolling right off the bat with his interview with Jill Byrne—the first of the night—and let loose a tall tale about Dr. Kendall Hansen and his horse Fast and Accurate, longshot winner of the JACK Cincinnati Casino Spiral Stakes (G3).
"I usually have a 45-minute conversation with him on Monday or Tuesday night. Kendall, he wanted a horse to bet on. He had a maiden $5,000 claimer he wanted me to ship to Colorado. I said, 'What about Fast and Accurate?' All of a sudden he forgot about every other horse in the barn. He bet on him. That week the conversation got moved up to Sunday. He had me take him over to a BP gas station near Turfway Park. He said he had a plan to roll over his winnings on some scratch offs. He came out, he won. Paid for the supplement (a non-Triple Crown nominee, it cost $200,000 to supplement Fast and Accurate to the Derby). I spoke with Harvey Diamond (of SkyChai Racing). I said, 'Look at this roll Kendall is on. He just made $200,000 on scratch offs.' He said, 'we're in.' And we've continued the roll."
Maker's tale brought the house down.
"That was a story for the ages," Byrne said.
"There's always a surprise Derby week," Maker said.
From there, the usual stories of horses making their way to the Run for the Roses and how well they're training were par for the course, with a few exceptions.
Trainers Steve Asmussen and Todd Pletcher have three horses apiece running in the Derby and gave their assessment of one and all. But first Pletcher was asked about his new look by Byrne, as the trainer sports a goatee.
"Once day this winter I was at the Ft. Lauderdale airport getting ready to get on a plane," Pletcher began. "I saw this elderly lady looking at me from the side. She kinda kept staring at me for awhile and she walked over and said, 'I recognize the white hair...do you have something to do with horseracing?' I said, 'Yes, ma'am, I'm a trainer.' She said, 'I knew I recognized you. You're D. Wayne Baffert.' I knew then I had to come up with a new look."
As for Asmussen, about Calumet Farm's Hence, he said: "The Sunland Derby (G3) turned out to be a quality field and he's trained extremely well here at Churchill."
When asked about the trip to New Mexico, he said. "He's a fairly aggressive horse in the morning and the Sunland Park race gave us the opportunity to space his races. We're hoping the six weeks will be perfect."
"Lookin at Lee...we've been waiting for a chance to get him in going a mile and a quarter. His lone victory was here at Churchill and the surface here will allow him to show his best."
Mark Casse, when asked about 2-year-old champion Classic Empire , who won the Arkansas Derby (G1) after a less-than-stellar effort in the Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (G2), said, "He'll throw some curveballs at you every once in awhile, but he's a good horse and a good horse can overcome a lot of things."
Joe Sharp, the trainer of Girvin, winner of the TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby (G2) in his last outing, was asked by co-host Paul Rogers if he'd given consideration to switching riders to Sharp's wife, Rosie Napravnick.
"No chance," Sharp said.
"It's all credit to (owner) Paul Reddam," he said. "He loves the sport, he loves the game, he loves the horses, and he loves to take chances. When we were cooling Irap out after the Sunland Derby (he finished fourth), we were depressed, but our hotwalker/groom had to put a lip chain on him. He was so full of energy. Explaining that to Paul, he said, 'What about wheeling him back in the Blue Grass?' And that's what happened there.
"He's training like a beast," O'Neill continued. "Tony Romero gets on him every morning and he's all smiles. If Tony is happy, we're happy. We're looking forward to Saturday."
Chad Brown, trainer of Blue Grass runner-up Practical Joke , was asked about his previous Derby experiences.
"It sucks if you are one of the 19 horses that loses," he said to much laughter. "I take things a lot easier now. A lot of it is out of your hands and the more you do this the more you realize this."
Louisville native Dale Romans, trainer of J Boys Echo, fourth in the Blue Grass said, of course, a win in the Derby would be special for him, but "no different than Steve (Asmussen) growing up in Texas, or Chad from an Ivy League school....
"First I want to congratulate Mike for upping his game, but Chad making people laugh?" he said.
The dinner began with a video salute to Darley's Thoroughbred Industry Awards and an impassioned speech by Pope McLean Jr., president of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association/Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders, the host of the night's program. He spoke of the state's being a premier destination for the Thoroughbred industry.