LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Neil Drysdale, trainer of A.P. Indy, jokes that he is going to post two signs outside his barn at Churchill Downs.
The first will read, with an arrow pointing west: "Arazi -- 150 meters."
The second will say: "Mint Juleps Sold Here."
Drysdale has a wry sense of humor, but also a reputation for being difficult -- a 44-year-old Englishman who is a perfectionist with his horses and a man with an attitude toward the press.
Maryjean Wall, racing writer for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, remembers hanging onto the side of a car as Drysdale gunned the engine to drive away. He had just won a stakes race at Keeneland, Ky., and she was attempting to get a quote from him about it. Wall recalled, "All he said was 'nice race,' " as she was dragged alongside the vehicle.
But, this week, as Derby pressure mounts, giving everyone an excuse to be tense, Drysdale is exuding warmth and charm.
"I'm even holding press conferences," he said as he stood outside his barn, wearing a tweed cap and a Lavenham coat while surrounded by reporters.
"Oh, he's really quite lovable," said his Norwegian-born wife, Inger. A talented photographer, she was busy photographing the favored Arazi yesterday -- not A.P. Indy.
"Neil won't let me. He never lets me photograph his good horses," she said. "It's one of his superstitions."
Drysdale said he is on his best behavior, because "everything is going smoothly. I'm a happy person."
Part of the reason might be that his Derby starter, a $2.9 million yearling, a son of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew and a half-brother to Preakness champ Summer Squall, is doing splendidly.
"You won't see him sparkle on the track [during his morning work]," Drysdale said. "He's not a brilliant work horse. He is lazy, but intelligent. He only does what he has to do, and he needs to go with a work mate to inspire him."
But Drysdale has brought out the best in A.P. Indy. The colt has won five consecutive races and $722,555. Like Arazi, his only defeat came in his first career start as a 2-year-old.
A.P. Indy recently won the Santa Anita Derby by collaring speed horse Bertrando and stamped himself as America's best chance to beat French-based Arazi in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.
The time of the Santa Anita race-- nine furlongs in 1 minute, 49 1/5 seconds -- is considered slow, prompting the so-called speed figure proponents to say that if A.P. Indy is the best, then it must be a mediocre crop of U.S. 3-year-olds.
"Oh, they [some reporters] say that every year," Drysdale said. ,, "And, as far as I'm concerned, time doesn't mean anything. This horse hasn't finished improving yet. He's getting better and better. Just how good is he? Can he beat Arazi? Well, I wish I knew. That's why we're going to race them."
Drysdale is every bit the success story that A.P. Indy is. He first came to this country to work with show horses in Florida. He then worked on stud farms here and in South America before he became a protege of Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham, with whom he worked as an assistant for four years.
Since going out on his own in 1975, Drysdale has trained 53 stakes winners and won three Breeders' Cup races with horses such as Princess Rooney, Tasso and Prized.
His training acumen has attracted clients from all over the world, including former Japanese race car driver Tomonori Tsurumaki, the owner of A.P. Indy.
A.P. Indy is named after Auto Polis, a leisure center that Tsurumaki, a land developer, built in Japan. "Indy" reflects Tsurumaki's interest in car racing and the Indianapolis 500.
Tsurumaki, 49, has raced horses for 20 years, and owns 100 horses, many in Japan, according to Inger Drysdale. "He also has about 30 race cars."
Tsurumaki's diverse interests include collecting art. He recently spent $48 million to buy a painting by Picasso.
Drysdale has about 40 horses in training at Hollywood Park and also trains runners for Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, half-owner of Arazi, and two of Sheik Mohammed's brothers, Maktoum al Maktoum and Hamdan al Maktoum.
The peripatetic Drysdales, who have Richard Avedon photographs and signed lithographs hanging in their tack room, have been invited to Dubai as guests of the al Maktoum ruling family, have journeyed to Hong Kong, where they ran a horse in an invitational race last fall, and are making their first start in the Kentucky Derby.
"If we win the Derby, Mr. Tsurumaki is taking us to Japan," Mrs. Drysdale said.