LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Sometimes in Kentucky, where horse racing resembles religion, people talk about the gods of racing occasionally reaching down to influence the winner of the Kentucky Derby.
Who can forget Unbridled's victory in 1990, when trainer Carl Nafzger screamed into the ear of Frances Genter, 92, as her winner thundered down the stretch?
Two years later, Lil E. Tee won for his 82-year-old owner, Cal Partee. The next year, the great breeder and philanthropist Paul Mellon, 86, was rewarded for lifetime contributions when Sea Hero donned the blanket of roses.
If the outcome of the Derby tomorrow at Churchill Downs is scripted by the gods, the winner will be as clear as the clang of a church bell. That winner will be Saarland, and the hand reaching down for that final nudge across the finish line will belong to Ogden Phipps.
Phipps, patriarch of one of racing's most prominent families, died 11 days ago at the age of 93. He bred and raced such wonderful horses as Buckpasser, Personal Ensign and Easy Goer. His daughter, Cynthia Phipps, bred and owns Saarland, but it was revealed upon her father's death that he owned 5 percent of the colt.
As chairman of The Jockey Club in the 1960s and 1970s, Ogden Phipps helped shape the face of modern racing. As a breeder perhaps unmatched in the production of quality horses, he helped shape the modern breed. He won Eclipse Awards as his horses won nearly every major race. One of his horses, Buckpasser in 1966, was Horse of the Year.
But one race eluded the remarkable Phipps. Despite seven decades of breeding and racing horses, he never won the Kentucky Derby.
Saarland will carry Cynthia Phipps' gold and purple silks in the 128th Derby. Those were the colors of Ogden Phipps' mother, Mrs. Henry Carnegie (Gladys Mills) Phipps, who founded the family's racing interests in the 1920s with Wheatley Stable.
Mrs. Phipps bred Seabiscuit, whose story in a best-selling book is helping to revive interest in racing, and Bold Ruler, whose influence on racing was profound; he sired Secretariat.
If you examine Saarland's past performances, you might conclude he will need all the Phipps divine help he can get. Although impeccably bred and thoroughly handsome, Saarland has been something of a disappointment.
But his trainer, Shug McGaughey, the respected handler of Phipps horses since 1985, has been answering critics all week.
"I'm a realist," he said. "I know he's got a ways to go, but he hasn't that far to go. ... Maybe everything will go right for us this time."
Like Ogden Phipps, McGaughey has not won the Derby. He hasn't even participated in it since Easy Goer and Awe Inspiring finished second and third behind Sunday Silence in 1989.
McGaughey hopes that minor surgery performed April 17 upon Saarland, four days after his lackluster fourth in the Wood Memorial Stakes, will enable the colt finally to fulfill his potential in the toughest race of his young life.
Saarland underwent surgery to correct a breathing problem. McGaughey said the colt displaced his soft palate in the Wood, resulting in a cutoff of his air supply.
After the race, Saarland's jockey, John Velazquez, told McGaughey that the colt took a breath with a quarter mile to go, but didn't let it out until crossing the finish line.
"Can you imagine running a quarter-mile holding your breath?" McGaughey says.
The surgery was performed in Saarland's stall at Belmont Park. He missed just a couple of days of training. His exercise rider, Adolph "Juice" Krajewski, said Saarland, who before was never eager to gallop or breeze, is now happy going to the track in the mornings.
More important, Krajewski said, Saarland's breathing is normal, and his workouts have been more powerful.
Said McGaughey: "I think we've probably helped him. But I can't know until he runs."
The identical surgery helped Coronado's Quest, whom McGaughey trained for Maryland breeder Stuart S. Janney III. After undergoing the procedure in spring 1998, Coronado's Quest won his next five races, including the Wood Memorial, Haskell and Travers.
If Saarland is breathing better and running faster, then his breeding alone - not to mention the Phipps charm - might propel him to victory in the Derby. He is perhaps more suited than any other horse in the race to relish the Derby's 1 1/4 miles.
Saarland's sire is Unbridled, who won the Derby for Mrs. Genter in 1990, and his dam is Versailles Treaty, who won the Alabama Stakes at 1 1/4 miles and twice finished second in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, including once here at Churchill Downs.
In his first crop, Unbridled sired Grindstone, who won the Derby in 1996. After establishing himself as one of the nation's top sires, Unbridled died unexpectedly last year at the young age of 14.
Ogden Phipps' daughter, Cynthia, who bred and campaigns Saarland, politely declined to be interviewed for this article. But McGaughey said she is as excited about the Derby as he has ever seen her.
"Hopefully, we've got a star in our corner nobody else has," McGaughey said. "Maybe Mr. Phipps will give us that little extra push."
What: 128th Kentucky Derby, first leg of thoroughbred horse racing's Triple Crown series
Post time: 6:04 p.m.
Where: Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.
Distance: 1 1/4 miles
Purse: $1 million
TV: Chs. 11,4