Tokyo to Louisville: backstretch in time

Horse racing: Akiko Gothard, 68, covers a lot of ground as a female Kentucky Derby trainer from Japan.

April 27, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Her face lights up as she greets visitors outside Barn 41 at Churchill Downs. They all want to know the same thing, something not only difficult to know but also difficult to tell: Akiko Gothard's life story.

"It's a long story," Gothard says, smiling just a little, "because I've lived a long time."

She is 68, not old by any means, but rich in the experiences of life. Most trainers of Kentucky Derby horses grew up on farms or the backsides of racetracks. But Gothard, the trainer of Derby long shot K One King, grew up in Tokyo, her teen-aged years scarred by the relentless Allied bombings of World War II.

"I was in air raids every night," Gothard says. "Finally my house was bombed."

This is not the usual banter of Derby week, which culminates Saturday in the 125th running of the Kentucky Derby. But Gothard is not the usual trainer.

As K One King peers eagerly from his stall behind her, Gothard recalls being in Tokyo after her mother, brother and sisters had already left for the relative safety of the countryside. She remained at home with her father as he oversaw his steel business.

When the air-raid sirens wailed, they sought refuge in one of the city's bomb shelters. One morning, when they tried to go home, they found their home destroyed.

"I couldn't come back," Gothard says. "There was nothing left, nothing. I was glad I was alive."

Public transportation was knocked out, so she and her father walked eight hours across Toyko until they reached her uncle's house. Eventually, they joined the rest of the family in the countryside.

"But I don't really like to concentrate on all that," Gothard says.

A diminutive woman who speaks softly, but earnestly, she is here, after all, to win the Kentucky Derby. Only eight women have trained Derby starters, and just one has finished in the top three. Northern California trainer Shelley Riley saddled Casual Lies to a second-place finish in 1992.

Gothard could make history with K One King, a handsome chestnut colt who has never finished worse than second. In seven races at three Kentucky tracks, he has won four and finished second three times, earning $297,810.

His most impressive triumph was the John Battaglia Stakes, a 1 1/16-mile race March 6 at Turfway Park that K One King dominated by nine lengths. Then March 27, in his most recent start, he finished second by 2 1/2 lengths to Stephen Got Even in the 1 1/8-mile Gallery Stakes, formerly the Jim Beam Stakes, also at Turfway Park.

Gothard finds it curious that many handicappers believe Stephen Got Even, trained by two-time Derby winner Nick Zito, has a solid chance of winning the Derby, but that K One King has been forgotten, 60-1 in the Daily Racing Form.

"In Japan, they must be very skeptical of what I'm trying to do," Gothard says, noting that women don't train horses in her native country. "Just like everybody here, they wonder: Does she know anything?"

Mike Battaglia, the announcer at Turfway Park and oddsmaker at Churchill Downs, believes she does. He and friends bet on K One King in early March in Las Vegas. They got him at 100-1 to win the Derby.

And Madeleine Paulson believes in Gothard. Paulson and her husband Allen, who campaigned Cigar, bought K One King after his impressive victory in the John Battaglia Stakes.

Madeleine Paulson, who spearheaded the deal, agreed to a request by Yoshiko Sato of Tokyo, the colt's breeder, owner and long-time Gothard friend, to retain Gothard as trainer at least through the Triple Crown. Paulson will say only that she paid between $1 million and $2 million for K One King.

"When you buy a horse and he's doing well, you don't change anything," Paulson says. "Akiko's done a terrific job with this horse.

"It's a pleasure to be working with a female trainer. Hopefully we'll be lucky together."

Gothard seems to be enjoying the relationship, too. Paulson frequently stops by the barn, and the women embrace and laugh and feed K One King carrots and mints.

"Before I got to know her, I thought she was more of a socialite," Gothard says of Paulson. "But she actually knows horses very well. She's very cooperative and helpful. Through this horse I have gained a friend."

They are unlikely partners, the wealthy and stylish Paulson and the gentle and down-to-earth Gothard. But their pairing in this elusive quest to win the Kentucky Derby is merely one more twist to the extraordinary story of Gothard's journey from Tokyo to Churchill Downs.

After the war she met and married an American serviceman. They moved to California, and then to Kentucky. Gothard was teaching Japanese and Oriental culture at the University of Kentucky in 1971 when she was asked to interpret for a breeder from Japan trying to buy a stallion in Kentucky.

That was her introduction to horses. She was 41. And it led to new careers as a bloodstock agent (buying and selling horses especially for Japanese clients) and an agent for Lloyd's of London selling equine insurance.

She and her first husband were divorced. Her second husband, Marvin Gothard, was a stockbroker and horse owner and, eventually, horse trainer. When he died in 1993, she obtained her trainer's license -- at age 63 -- and began training his horses on the Kentucky circuit.

Now, she is four days away from saddling K One King in the Kentucky Derby.

"I can't say I'm not excited, but at my age I don't get too excited," she says. "I didn't dream to become a trainer. I didn't dream to win the Kentucky Derby."

She smiles again, just a little.

"You never know about life," she says.

Kentucky Derby

What: 125th Kentucky Derby

Where: Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.

When: Saturday, post time 5: 27 p.m.

TV: Chs. 2, 7, 4: 30 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Purse: $1 million

Distance: 1 1/4 miles

Field: Full field of 20 expected

Post position draw: Tomorrow, 5 p.m., ESPN

Pub Date: 4/27/99

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