LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Like the editor so many of us long to be, D. Wayne Lukas stood there rattling off story ideas to a group of reporters outside his barn yesterday. The James Bond horse. The Motown horse. The almost-guilty-of-homicide horse.
"You guys shouldn't have any trouble this year," Lukas said, smiling that thousand-watter on a chilly morning.
Someone in the bleary audience mumbled something about having no more or less trouble than usual, cough, cough, but the point was conceded. There are years when the Kentucky Derby is thin on plot, but this year's is as thick as a peanut butter, popcorn and doughnut diet. Which we will get to in a minute.
Gary Stevens, the jockey of Brocco, calls it the most energized Derby he can remember. There are seven jockeys and four trainers who already have won the Derby. There is Ron McAnally, a Hall of Fame trainer trying to win his first Derby. There is trainer Charlie Whittingham, a cult hero who doesn't come unless he fully expects to win. There are owners who got rich on junk food, owners who got rich on music, owners who got rich on death. . .
Why, this year's Derby is so hot on plot that we might even see a horse take the lead in the stretch and vanquish his challengers by firing off a volley of tiny radio-controlled darts from his back shoes.
You scoff, but Brocco, the second choice on the morning line, is owned by Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, the longtime producer of the James Bond movies. We have no idea what he might envision as a scenario for holding off a late challenge. Perhaps a VICIOUS KARATE CHOP TO THE BLINKERS! Or a curtain of poison smoke at the eighth pole. Keep it in mind.
(Incidentally, did you hear that Tonya Harding is coming to the Derby this year? She's going to handicap the horses.)
How hot is this year's Derby? Burt Bacharach is in the running with a horse named Soul Of The Matter. OK, so that's not so hot. (Unless your idea of hip is "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on my Head.") But did you know that the famous songwriter is somewhat famous among racetrackers as a tough nut?
"This horse needs worming," he once supposedly told no less an authority than Whittingham (so tells McAnally, Whittingham's friend).
"Go worm your piano," Whittingham said.
Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records, also has a horse in the race, long shot Powis Castle. Win the race? It's just his imagination.
Standing a better chance is Tabasco Cat, the Lukas-trained third choice, who was nearly hauled away from the barn in handcuffs (hoofcuffs?) for committing manslaughter last December. He got loose and ran over Lukas' son and assistant trainer, Jeff, who fell into a coma and nearly died. Five months later, the steamrollee is recovering nicely and the steamroller is a serious Derby contender.
"If he wins, it'd be historic," Lukas said. "You couldn't make up something like this. As rough as the whole thing has been on all of us, you can't ignore the fact that it's a great story. As long as Jeff recovers, of course."
The other two horses in the death trifecta are Southern Rhythm and Kandaly. Southern Rhythm is partly owned by Bill Heiligbrodt, the president and CEO of one of the nation's largest owners of funeral homes and cemeteries. Kandaly is partly owned by Ronnie Lamarque, the singing car dealer from New Orleans, whose estranged wife recently was convicted of conspiring to have him killed.
Death is huge at the Derby this year.
Not quite as dramatic, but certainly poignant, is the story of the favorite, Holy Bull. Owner/trainer Jimmy Croll, a grandfatherly 74, got the horse of his life when his longtime favorite client died and bequeathed it to him. (More death!) He is the sentimental favorite in the barns.
Somewhat less tear-jerky is the story of Ulises, the Venezuelan-based long shot, who flew to America and had to spend a week in a Miami quarantine facility hanging around with a bunch of ostriches and zebras. The owner, Robert Perez, complained that it was somewhat less than dignified treatment. No comment from the horse.
Blumin Affair is the horse for Rotisserie geeks and other nerds of the world. He has a nothing pedigree, but his owners picked him out of a sale strictly on the advice of a company that analyzes 15 factors of horses' biomechanical efficiency. If you'd like, they'd be happy to drop by your house and show you their pictures for three or four hours.
One of the owners of Blumin Affair is Art Vogel, who ran the nation's second-largest popcorn-producing company. Valiant Nature is owned by Verne Winchell, a big-bucks guy who started out selling doughnuts. Strodes Creek, Whittingham's horse, is partly owned by W. T. Young, another big-bucks guy who started out selling peanut butter. See what we mean about this being a great Derby? Junk food for everyone!