Derby road filled with twists, turns

Horse racing: Through numbers and luck, some trainers gain entry to the Kentucky Derby like clockwork, while others, though piling up honors, are relative strangers to the scene.

May 04, 2000|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, KY — LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Neil Drysdale is one of the most respected trainers in the country. A 52-year-old native of England, he will be inducted this summer into horse racing's Hall of Fame.

Drysdale has won five Breeders' Cup races. He has trained five Eclipse Award-winning champions. Yet he has never saddled a starter in the Kentucky Derby.

On Saturday, when 20 3-year-olds line up in the Derby starting gate at Churchill Downs, Drysdale will have two of the best: the Santa Anita Derby runner-up War Chant and the probable heavy favorite Fusaichi Pegasus.

After 26 years training on his own (after serving as an assistant to Roger Laurin and Charlie Whittingham), what took him so long?

Drysdale unfurled that controlled grin of a deliberate Englishman.

"I haven't gotten there yet," he said.

Nearly flippant in its simplicity, Drysdale's response was nevertheless true -- as he knows only too well. Despite his achievements and the near-universal acclaim by colleagues, Drysdale is example No. 1 of the difficulty of getting a horse to the Kentucky Derby.

"I've tried," Drysdale said. "Believe me, I've tried. But horses I've tried with always ran into a hitch."

In 1986, Drysdale tried with Tasso, who had been voted champion 2-year-old the year before. While preparing at Aqueduct for the Derby, a loud noise startled him. He leaped straight into the air. When he came down, one hoof sliced a large chunk out of another hoof.

In 1992, Drysdale tried with A.P. Indy. The colt would have been the bettors' second choice behind Arazi. But the morning of the race, Drysdale scratched A.P. Indy because of a sore foot.

A.P. Indy came back and won the Belmont and Breeders' Cup Classic on the way to a Horse of the Year campaign. But Drysdale concluded that the foot was not fit for the Derby.

As a horseman known for caution, was he being overly cautious?

Barry Irwin, president of Team Valor, the syndicate that owns the Derby contender The Deputy, has had horses with Drysdale.

"If you're pointing toward a specific race, he's the best in the country," Irwin said. "But you have to temper that with the fact he's a perfectionist. If there's one straw in his path, he won't go forward."

Irwin said that he learned with Captain Bodgit, the 1997 Derby and Preakness horse trained in Maryland by Gary Capuano, that you can't be overly cautious and win a spring classic.

"You can't pussyfoot around with a Derby horse," Irwin said. "You need fitness. You need pounding. You've got to sock it to those horses."

Many trainers -- not to mention owners of these fragile creatures -- aren't willing to do that, especially with 3-year-olds still growing and developing week by week.

John Kimmel, trainer of the Derby entrant Wheelaway, is from that school. And, like Drysdale, Kimmel, 45, has never saddled a Derby starter.

"I've never been one to push a horse," Kimmel said. "It's a tremendous, tremendous challenge on a horse and his fortitude as well as his physical limitations.

"These horses can get hurt so easily. You need a horse that can take it. And a horse that can take the demands and stress that early in his career is a special animal."

For trainer Bobby Frankel, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995, his lack of Derby participation is because of a lack of potential Derby horses. Despite training four champions and winning the Eclipse Award as top trainer in 1993, Frankel, 58, has saddled horses in one Derby. In 1990, he started a pair: Pendleton Ridge, who finished 13th, and Burnt Hills, who finished 14th.

On Saturday, Frankel will saddle Aptitude, a late-charging son of A.P. Indy who has won only one race, but in two major stakes this year roared from far back like a horse crying out for the Derby's 1 1/4 miles.

"My owners obviously don't feel I can train a Derby horse," Frankel said. "I might get five 2-year-olds a year -- five out of 65 to 70 horses."

On the other hand, trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who has started more Derby horses -- 35 -- than any other trainer, said the Derby is as much about math as horsemanship. This will be Lukas' 20th straight year in the Derby.

"If you're going to be here 20 consecutive years," Lukas said, "it becomes a numbers game."

Lukas said his Derby-minded owners provide him more than 50 2-year-olds every year. Of those, he said, maybe 10 are solid Derby prospects. On Saturday, he'll start three: High Yield, Exchange Rate and Commendable.

Also, Lukas said, experience is critical when preparing a young horse for the tough grind of the Derby. With an older horse, a trainer can pass one race and find another if his horse isn't ready.

"But with the Derby, you have one window of time to do it in," Lukas said.

Todd Pletcher, a former Lukas assistant, learned his lessons well. This is his first Derby on his own, and he will saddle four horses: More Than Ready, Trippi, Graeme Hall and Impeachment.

Pletcher, 32, said he didn't plan on having so many starters his first year. But of the 80 horses he trains for various owners, he said, these four just happened to earn their way into the race. They are a combined 23-for-28 finishing in the top three.

"We're not here for any records or to create any fanfare by having four horses," Pletcher said. "We're just fortunate enough to have four horses who deserve to be here."

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