LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- He stood in a chilling wind and handed out chilling news outside Barn 33 at Churchill Downs yesterday morning.
Jim Ryerson, the trainer of the Kentucky Derby favorite, Unbridled's Song, submitted one lament after another to a gathering of reporters.
The horse had a sore left front heel and a new shoe to help alleviate the pain.
He also had a crack on the hoof, and was on antibiotics to prevent infection.
L A final workout scheduled for today probably wouldn't occur.
If the horse had to race now, he couldn't.
Other than that, everything was terrific!
"I'm still trying to be optimistic," Ryerson said.
His sad eyes and smoldering frown said otherwise.
He knew it was already too late, in a way.
He knew, as all smart trainers do, that this was the wrong way to try to win the Derby.
From behind in a 20-horse field? Sure, you could win the Derby that way.
With a double-digit long shot in a field of superstars? Sure, you could win the Derby that way.
With a horse of marginal bloodstock? Sure, you could win the Derby that way.
But not this way.
Not with your horse fighting injuries as post time approached.
Not with your training regimen shot to pieces.
Not with you pacing the barn floor, fingers crossed, as vets and blacksmiths hammered away at your horse.
"It is hard enough to win this race without fighting through setbacks," said trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
And with them?
Lukas, winner of two Derbies, just shook his head.
"There are enough setbacks built into this race with the big field and the 130,000 screaming fans," he said. "You don't want any more. You want a dull camp in the days leading up to the race. You want things going smoothly. You want your horse peaking."
You want him sailing around the track in the mornings with his ears pricked, ready for more.
You want him following the same, tedious routine he has followed for months.
You want him so healthy that he squeaks.
Basically, you want anything except the desperate circumstances suddenly confronting Ryerson.
"I'm very emotional about it," he said, "but these things happen and I'm going to look positively until I can't anymore."
Doesn't exactly make you want to run out and plunk down your nickel on him.
Why not just scratch now?
"If he continues to improve as much as he has in the past 12 hours, we'll be fine," Ryerson said. "We haven't given any thought to any possibilities other than running him on Saturday."
But that's all it is. Talk.
"We just have to hope for continued progress, that's all," Ryerson said.
It doesn't mean the horse is incapable of winning. You can look it up.
Four years ago, Lil E. Tee had a stiff neck 24 hours before the race after reacting poorly to an injection. It was a setback. He recovered and won the Derby.
In 1971, Canonero II had a calamitous trip from Venezuela. He was detained for four days with a bunch of ostriches in a quarantine facility in Miami and vanned 1,100 miles to Louisville, arriving just a few days before the Derby. That's enough setbacks for a whole field. But he won the race.
It can happen.
"Maybe Unbridled's Song is still [physically] sound and talented enough athletically to overcome all this," Lukas said. "If that's the case, great."
But his soundness is debatable. His training has been disrupted.
Make no mistake: A shoe change four days before the Derby is a portrait of desperation.
"This has to be unsettling for them," Lukas said.
You could say that.
One week ago, Ryerson's horse loomed as maybe the biggest Derby favorite in years. Yesterday, he put a new shoe on the horse and scheduled a special workout. Churchill aimed its closed-circuit cameras at Unbridled's Song walking slowly around the track. A track official hustled Ryerson into a press room to watch the closed-circuit monitor.
Ryerson stood in front of the set for 15 minutes silent and almost perfectly still. A cup of coffee in his hand went from steaming hot to cold. A gaggle of reporters respectfully moved to the back of the room to let him study in peace. His eyes barely left the screen.
L Suddenly, he bolted for the door and headed back to Barn 33.
Reporters were waiting for him.
A bitter north wind blew through the barns.
Ryerson stood up on a podium to take questions.
It was hard not to feel for him.
He tried to sound optimistic, but he knew it was already too late, in a way.
This was the wrong way to try to win the Derby.
The question, now, was what he was going to do about it.
Pub Date: 5/01/96