Nearly 500 guests crowded into the Hyatt Regency Ballroom in Louisville Tuesday night to celebrate this year's Kentucky Derby (gr. I) contenders, and honor the trainers who have propelled them to their spots in Saturday's Run for the Roses.
The annual Kentucky Derby Trainers Dinner was a time for reflection on past performances and Derby forecasts mingled with light-hearted jabs and sincere praise from one trainer to another. Keeping the larger than usual turnout entertained and amused were media personalities Chris Lincoln and Paul Rogers, who served as the evenings co-hosts.
Nick Zito, Bobby Frankel, and Bob Baffert were no-shows, while other trainers ate up the limelight, like D. Wayne Lukas, who provided comic relief with a few one-liners of his own.
In Zito's absence, his assistant trainer Tim Poole stepped in to answer the question on everyone's mind -- how can a trainer with five entrants with five different owners keep a level playing field?
"Nick put it very professionally," Poole said. "It's like having five children. How do you pick the best one? My wish list is when they all leave the seven-yard pole, all five horses stay together -- one, two, three, four, and five--and may the best horse win".
When asked if a three-horse entry was a hard workload to juggle, Todd Pletcher jokingly said, "I think five would be a little easier."
Pletcher also had high praise for Lukas.
"I can sincerely say that I don't think that anyone person in our industry has made a bigger impact than Wayne Lukas," Pletcher said. "This guy has literally changed the way American trainers do business. "He has revolutionized the horseracing game, which is certainly hard to do."
Patrick Biancone defended his Spanish Chestnut's front-running style by comparing the colt to inaugural Derby winner Aristides by reading the call chart of the race from 1875 in his thick French accent. Not discouraged by the jokesters Rogers and Lincoln, who emphasized the language barriers by asking "what?" and "huh?" too many times, Biancone exited the stage with an optimistic, "See you on Sunday."
Lexington native Kiaran McLaughlin said it was his life long dream to be in Louisville for the Kentucky Derby and poked a little fun at his own name.
"When I was in seventh grade, 12 years old, I wrote a paper about how I wanted to be a horse trainer. I didn't know Wayne Lukas at the times so I used Charlie Whittingham as who I wanted to be like. But it worked out and I've been able to live my dream and you know Wayne always told me you need to be here for the big days and the Triple Crown races and I never really understood, but this week when the third reporter came looking for a girl for the trainer, I knew what he meant."
Other trainers who took a little time from their hectic week to join in the fun were Ron Ellis, Tim Ritchey, Bob Holthus, and Warren Stute.
John Servis, who led Smarty Jones to Derby victory last year, was honored with the Kentucky Derby Trainer's Trophy. Servis attended the dinner with his wife, son and barn foreman of 16 years, Bill Foster, who will be retiring this year.
Servis recalled attending a Derby breakfast with Carl Nafzger last year during his high-profile Triple Crown quest. When a reporter asked how he was responding to the media hype, Nafzger offered his advice. "He said 'John let me tell you one thing.'The only thing you need to know about the media is you want them at your barn Sunday morning'," Servis recalled. "Let me tell you Sunday morning after the Belmont, it was a lonely barn."
A special award of recognition went to Julian "Buck Wheat," a Kentucky native who is affectionately known as the "mayor of the backside" at Churchill Downs.
Also among the night's honorees were WinStar Farm, who received the William T. Young Humanitarian Award for its human endeavors, namely for founding the Race for Education and the Klein Family Learning Center/WinStar Library. Co-owner Bill Casner accepted the award.