Kentucky Derby: pleasure and a pain

JOHN EISENBERG

April 23, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

BOWIE -- Ah, success. What an annoyance.

"The motel in Louisville wants $250 a night, four-night minimum," Ben Perkins Jr. was saying yesterday at the barn, "and get this: paid in advance."

L Does it get any better than this? And does it get any worse?

"That was the lady from Churchill Downs," Perkins said, hanging up the phone again. "It's like $800 for a box of seats. I know we're gonna need at least two."

Taking a hot horse to the Kentucky Derby. How sweet it is.

And how sour.

"It is very exciting," said Perkins, whose big horse, Storm Tower, trains at Bowie, "and it is an unreal pain in the neck."

He had not expected to have to take on any of this. Arranging to get Storm Tower from Bowie to Louisville. Arranging to take his barn help on the road for a week. Arranging lodging and tickets for everyone. Perkins had not thought any of it would be necessary. Everyone involved with the horse had pretty much decided against going to the Kentucky Derby.

"We thought we had it all mapped out," Perkins said.

Yeah. Things were going to be so simple. So tranquil. They were aiming for the Preakness, a home game, just a cab ride away. It made sense. The race is a haven for speed horses such as Storm Tower, and it is an amiable stroll compared with the 20-horse, traffic-jammed, nerve-jangling insanity that is the Derby.

The Derby is the biggest race on the planet, of course, but the truth is that most trainers hate it. Who wants to put a decent horse through that?

"It is," Perkins said, "an extremely hard race to win."

Yet when Storm Tower went and won the dadblasted Wood Memorial last weekend, Perkins was all but required to take a shot at the Derby next Saturday. It is simply an impossible race to turn down when the opportunity presents itself.

"What are you going to do?" Perkins said. "If someone had told me this time last year that I'd have a horse win six of seven starts and come up to the Derby as the third choice, I'd have been pretty excited about it."

What are you going to do? You can hate the Derby for its absurdity and annoyances and sheer unreasonableness, but if you have a shot at winning, a legitimate shot, how can you turn it down? It's not as if you know you'll get another shot next year. Or ever again.

Perkins, who lives in New Jersey but trains in Maryland, took a horse to the Derby three years ago. Horse called Faultless Ensign. Decent horse. Won a couple of stakes beforehand. Ran 14th in a field of 15 on Derby Day.

"We learned a lot," said Perkins, 36, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania who operates his stable with his father. "We learned that you didn't go to the Kentucky Derby to find out if you had a good horse. It's no place to find out something like that. The point being that you better know going in."

He knows this time. Storm Tower is a sleek, speedy bay with the resolve to win from off the lead. Perkins could see the potential when he saw the colt gallop for the first time at a 2-year-old sale in Florida 14 months ago.

"Everyone could see it," he said. "You just have to look at him on the track to know he's a player. It's like in any other sport, baseball or whatever. You can tell which ones are the special athletes. For me, it was love at first sight."

The colt had sold as a yearling for $13,000, but Perkins and his father bought it for a pair of Philadelphia businessmen at a price of $245,000. Such high-priced horses often don't work out, but this one did. Storm Tower won his first five races, including the Fountain of Youth.

A second-place finish in the Florida Derby talked Perkins and the owners out of the Kentucky Derby, but the Wood talked them back in. What are you going to do?

"We thought we'd been looking at it realistically," Perkins said. "He showed he deserved the chance."

The horse will van to Kentucky, leaving tonight. Perkins looked into flying, but heard all sorts of horror stories about unscheduled stops and decided against it. Perkins himself will fly down Sunday.

"You just want to be sure you're not pushing the horse," he said. "You want to do what's right. I really feel like we are. Rick [Wilson, the jockey] said he had something left [at the end of the Wood]. He was just loafing through the stretch. We really feel we have a legitimate chance to win. I would hope so. It's costing the owners $45,000 to run."

The price of success. What a pain. And what a thrill.

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