Pick a Horse, Any Horse
1:03 p.m.Academy Award-winning actor Joe Pesci is the guest of honor at the Breeders' Cup Luncheon, but he's not here to talk about his movies. Actually, he doesn't want to talk much about anything (his Oscar speech, "It was my privilege, thank you," was the shortest in Hollywood history), but because it is the Breeders' Cup and because he is the guest, he says a few words."My only Breeders' Cup memory is of me getting killed at the Breeders' Cup trying to figure out who's going to win," he says. "I don't have any tips. I wish I did, I'd share them, but that's what makes it exciting. Just pick a horse, pick a number, pick a trainer...anything can happen."Pesci may not have a handicapping strategy, but he does know how much cash to lay out.
"I used to think that two-dollar bettors were like low-life, but they're the best," he says. "They're the ones who make horse racing. They just want to pick a winner, that's all. And, in my own way, that's all I'm trying to find, too."Pesci will be visiting Churchill Downs for the first time this weekend. He's already sworn not to attend the Kentucky Derby until he owns a horse that is chasing the roses, but the Breeders' Cup is acceptable. Looks like he has some handicapping to do. -C.N.
12:30 p.m.The main dish at the Breeders' Cup Luncheon – a Hot Brown sandwich – sparks conversation about recent dinner engagements. Ron Borgese's latest party was in honor of Peruvian jockey Edgar Prado, who will ride Nightmare Affair in the TVG Sprint. According to Borgese, efforts to make the jockey feel at home last Wednesday went slightly awry. Seems the partners at Lucky Gambler Racing Stables decided to entertain with Peruvian-style cuisine. It kind of worked out – at least everybody enjoyed the dinner – but an inside source (Prado's wife) revealed that the jockey's favorite food is spaghetti and clams."I was driving across town to find Peruvian ingredients, and his favorite food is spaghetti and clams?" Borgese said. "I guess it was the thought that counts. We wanted him to know we'd go out of our way for him, and we all love the guy." -C.N.
Very, Very Lucky
12:10 p.m.Ron Borgese doesn't eat very much during the Breeders' Cup Kick-Off Luncheon downtown at the Galt House – he's too excited. He's never been to a Breeders' Cup – he's only watched the races on TV.This is his first time in Louisville and his first time at the Breeders' Cup, but 42-year-old Borgese isn't losing any time. He's running a horse on Saturday. Talk about being a fast mover."My dad loved racing so it was my goal my whole life to get race horses," he says. "I wish everybody was as passionate about the game as we are for the right reasons. We enjoy being there, we enjoy the thrill of our horse running, and it brings a lot of happiness to a lot of people."Borgese's speed matches that of Nightmare Affair, who races in the name of Timber Side Stables and was supplemented to the TVG Sprint after a victory in the Smile Sprint Handicap July 15 at Calder. Borgese and his partner, Peter Vitulli, purchased the horse privately as a 2-year-old with the help of Gary Morano. Manny Azpurua is his trainer. At one point, they considered selling the 5-year-old son of Out of Place for $400,000. Saturday, he'll be running for a purse of $2 million. -C.N.
10 a.m.Training hours are over. Mike McCarthy sips a Mountain Dew outside Barn 31. The 35-year-old is wearing his racing colors: black baseball cap with "Todd Pletcher Racing Stable" stitched across the front."I gave up coffee," he says. He looks at his watch. "It's been 90 days now. A little caffeine is OK every now and then."He doesn't need any more caffeine. He has plenty to keep him alert until his boss gets into town Wednesday with the Belmont Park-based contingent. Pletcher has a record 18 horses pre-entered for the Breeders' Cup World Championships.McCarthy is ready. He's got everything organized. Plus, he's stoked."You get more fired up for this; any championship-type weekend, whether it be the Derby, Breeders' Cup, or the Florida Derby, or Travers weekend at Saratoga," McCarthy says. "Your level of expectations is a little higher. The caliber of horses is better, the competition is greater." -E.H.
9:45 a.m.A newly constructed chain link fence surrounds the quarantine barns where the European-based horses are settling in. Two planeloads of horse are in the house. The last, with trainer Aidan O'Brien's horses, is scheduled to come tomorrow. Security guard Dorothy Hughes is out front and center. If you don't have a badge, you're not getting past her."I've been working Churchill Downs security for 13 years now," she says with authority. "I'm here every year at Derby time. Everybody knows me...just about.She works for Corporate Security Service, which is contracted by Churchill Downs. "I do different things," she says. "I work at medical buildings, churches, the Zoo, all those kinds of things."She doesn't suffer fools wisely. "I mean what I say, and when I say it, I don't back down. I'll go with the toughest of them. If people know you mean it, you don't have no problem."I'm here all week," she says. "They might give me a day off, but that's a big 'might.'"Welcome back to the world of the backstretch, Dorothy.-E.H.
A Woman and Her Shoes
9:30 a.m.In the spring, trainer Michael Matz came to Churchill Downs with a 3-year-old colt named Barbaro. They had a pretty good time.This fall, the Fair Hill, Md.-based Matz is back in town. He's outside Barn 43. He's got a 4-year-old filly, Round Pond, entered in the Distaff for Richard Porter's Fox Hill Farms. The Awesome Again filly worked yesterday at Keeneland over the Polytrack. "I heard the track was sloppy here, and I just wanted to make sure we got the work in," Matz said of the move. "We got into some problems before the Beldame where I missed a work with her and I didn't want to miss this one."On the Polytrack, I knew I was going to work her for sure. I knew the footing was going to be good."Round Pond ran third, beaten seven lengths by Fleet Indian and Balletto in the Oct. 7 Beldame at Belmont Park. Before that, she was second, beaten a head in the Molly Pitcher Breeders' Cup Handicap at Monmouth Aug. 27."We've changed some things around with her shoes," Matz said, noting the filly has had some problems with her feet. "I went back to some regular shoes instead of keeping the glue-on shoes, so it was my fault, I should have just put her back on the glue-on shoes after the Molly Pitcher, but I thought she was going to be OK. She just really didn't like it."It's a good idea not to get between a woman and her shoes."She's doing good right now," he said. "We've got to find a way to make up seven lengths, but I like the way she's coming into the race. I feel more confident in her now than I did going into the Beldame." -E.H.
He's the Man
8:35 a.m.Television crews swarm around the gap at the three-eighths pole like a muzzle of bees around their hive as Lava Man, wearing black blinkers and a red shadow roll, steps onto the track. He is all business; neck bowed, nostrils flared, piston-like legs cranking out a precision-jog – one, two, three, four.Exercise rider Tony Romero keeps an easy hold on the reins. Relaxed. They jog around the track and gallop out a slow mile and a half.Later, back at the barn, Romero slides from the saddle and hands the big horse over to a hotwalker. The son of a trainer from Mexico City, he's been all over; in Dubai with good horses, in New York last year with Stevie Wonderboy. Trainer Doug O'Neill sends him wherever his top horses go. He's that good. And, after riding Thoroughbreds for more than 25 years, Romero likes Lava Man the best."He's pretty happy and he feels good," Romero says. "Usually the way he acts on the track is pretty calm. Here in the stall sometimes it's so exciting with the cameras and all that, he likes to buck and kick. But he knows what it's all about. We're excited because he's doing good, eating good, working good."Doug O'Neill can't praise his exercise rider enough.Romero? Well, he just points to the horse. -C.N.
8:30 a.m.Trainer Pat Byrne is readying a set to go out on the racetrack but he's missing a rider. He works his cell phone, tracks him down, and the rider arrives. Byrne is busy, but he always has a few minutes to talk about Awesome Again and the 1998 Breeders' Cup Classic.Stronach Stable's Awesome Again , who was coupled with Touch Gold , ran past a great field in the stretch to win the Classic that year under the Twin Spires. He beat the likes of Skip Away, Silver Charm, Swain, Victory Gallop, Coronado's Quest, and Touch Gold."I'll never forget stepping out on the racetrack, and it was a huge crowd, it was almost like a...it was a feeling you can't really describe. It was a great moment in sports period. It was also very special for me and my family."It was just disappointing he (Awesome Again) didn't get Horse of the Year that year," he laments. "He was six for six. We kind of got shunned a bit because we didn't take him to New York for the Gold Cup. It was a sloppy racetrack that day; a bad race track. Had I run Awesome Again in that race, I wouldn't have made the Classic."I went to Hawthorne instead and we had a great racetrack, a mile and a quarter prep,' Byrne said. "Admittedly, it was an easier spot, but the Classic was the overall goal. I told (owner) Frank Stronach the goal was to get into the Classic with the best, freshest horse. We got there with great confident. He was a little bit of a sulky horse. He wasn't an easy horse to train. We got that nice prep into him and then I was in position for a big race in the Classic."It's like everything else in this game, its pure management. If that's what cost him Horse of the Year, than that's a shame."Byrne would have then had back-to-back Horse of the Year titles, having trained Favorite Trick to the title as a 2-year-old in 1997.This year's Classic?"Bernardini and Lava Man. It looks like a great East Coast versus West Coast thing. You're looking at possibly the champion 3-year-old against the champion older horse. That's a great billing right there in itself."I thought Bernardini's race in the Preakness was awesome. You've got other nice horses in there as well. It's a good group." -E.H.
8:05 a.m.EMTs Melinda Cox and Joey Freeman sit in their idling ambulance, keeping an eye on a steady flow of equine traffic headed to the track.They provide on-site medical assistance during morning hours, but they also follow fields during the races. It's an interesting view, Freeman says – 30 feet behind the churning hooves and balanced white britches. You can't tell who wins, but that doesn't matter. Every race is a success as long as the jockeys don't go down."Of course you're worried about 'em, but it's like, jump out and go get 'em!," he says. "You're trained to take care of the situation, not panic."For the Breeders' Cup, there will be multiple first aid stations set up throughout the frontside for use in more common medical situations – from little scrapes to fainting spells. "We'll have it covered," Cox says. "That's our job."And that's a relief. -C.N.
Take a Chance, You Know?
7:50 a.m.Trainer Bobby Frankel is standing at the gap near the Press Center, coffee in hand, Breeders' Cup baseball hat secure. He is comfortable with his position going into Saturday's races, he says – three horses, none of them the likely favorite, but all with a decent shot.Looking over at the Twin Spires, he contemplates the differences – and similarities – between running horses in the Breeders' Cup and the Kentucky Derby."It's a totally different experience, yet the same," he says. "You've got more chances here but, if you have a 3-5 shot in the Classic and a 3-5 shot in the Derby, you're going to feel the pressure. I'm not in that position this year, and I like it that way."
The idea of going into this kind of competition with a large contingent of horses, such as Todd Pletcher's 18? Not very appealing."If you have a bad day, it's going to be a really bad day," he says.Looks like Saturday will be a good day for Frankel."The horses are all training well," he says. "I keep my fingers crossed with Badge of Silver, because anything can happen. He's a nice horse, he's run once on the turf and he's won, and it's not going to increase his value to run in an allowance race. I figure we'll give him a shot, take a chance, you know?"In racing, that's what it's all about. -C.N.
One in Three
7:45 a.m.California-based trainer Eduardo Inda has a three-horse stable. One of his runners, T.H. Approval is running in the John Deere Turf Saturday afternoon. He just got in town last night. His fleece jacket is zipped up tight around his neck. "I'm not too crazy about the weather, but it is beautiful," he says.The last time Inda was at Churchill Downs was 2000 when he had Riboletta in the Distaff. She went down to defeat at odds-on. "The filly was 2-5 that year; it wasn't too good that year."He's hoping this year will be different."Luckily this horse has been good to me all year," he says. T.H. Approval has four graded stakes wins this year and has earned more than $500,000. A good year, indeed.-E.H.
Nerves of Steel
7:30 a.m.Trainer Wayne Catalano is hanging out at the gap. The Chicago-based trainer worked his 2-year-old filly, Dreaming of Anna, yesterday. He's chatting with jockey Rene Douglas."She's doing super," he reports. Yesterday, he also worked Lewis Michael on the turf. Frank Calabrese's 3-year-old colt is cross-entered in the Mile and the Sprint, but it doesn't look like he'll get in.Catalano has some Breeders' Cup expertise. He saddled Tamwell in the 2004 Breeders' Cup at Lone Star."These are the events you'd like to be in. It's what you get up every morning at 4:30, seven days a week. This is what you work for."Is Catalano nervous? "Nah; I'm good until they go into the gates." -E.H.
Everybody's an Expert
7:05 a.m.Trainer T.V. Smith is going through wraps outside his barn. The midwest trainer displays a Nebraska baseball cap. He doesn't have a horse in the Breeders' Cup, but like everyone around here, he's got an opinion."I think Bernardini is going to be awful tough to beat," he says. "I think Lava Man is a nice horse, but he's pretty much had things his way. He gets out in front by himself. He's not going to be out in front by himself in the Classic."Smith has been coming to Churchill since 1991. He's seen a lot and knows a lot about horses, but defers any comments to others. His dry Midwestern wit comes through."I don't know nothing, but there are plenty of guys around here that are plenty smart...just ask them." -E.H.
George Washington is 'Money'
6:51 a.m.Steam rises from freshly-turned muck pits to greet the dawn. It's Monday morning, Breeders' Cup week. The pace is quickening.Quickly moving through the backstretch in a bright red sweatsuit is an elderly gentleman by the name of Vernon Vincent."I'm a nobody," he says. "I just love horses, and I walk through here on my three-mile walk every morning."Vincent is a local. He's lived two blocks away from Churchill Downs' entrance since 1953. Is he a racing fan? "It's the only reason I buy a paper," he snaps.He claims to have made a big score with Black Tie Affair in the 1991 Breeders' Cup Classic at the Downs. He's got a system."I don't play no gimmicks," he says. "I parlay 'em. When I go to the track, I take what money I'm going to spend at the track, and I have what I call a 'money race.' When I get to that race, I'm going to let it all ride and forget about it."Who gets the "money" Saturday?"George Washington. Aidan O'Brien ain't sending that horse over here for nothing. He comes here and gets those big races all the time. I like that horse." -E.H.