Road to Derby filled with potholes

Horses go around the first turn during the

Horses go around the first turn during the 137th Kentucky Derby horse race at Churchill Downs. (May 7, 2011) (Credit: AP)

LOUISVILLE, Ky.

Robert LaPenta is a sharp, articulate guy, the founder and former CEO of a company that protects against identity theft. He also has spent millions chasing the Kentucky Derby dream. When Derby fever strikes, even corporate wizards can lose themselves in the quest for racing's Holy Grail.

Approximately 35,000 thoroughbreds were born in 2008, and for months LaPenta dreamed that one of them, Dialed In, would bring him to horse heaven, the winner's circle in the Churchill Downs infield on the first Saturday in May. It didn't happen, as the 5-1 favorite was a non-factor Saturday and finished eighth, making LaPenta 0-for-5 in the Derby.

"There have been many sleepless nights,'' LaPenta said, "and you get less sleep the closer the day comes. I've been in a lot of businesses, had a lot of success and been in a lot of stressful situations. And I've got to tell you that very few situations have so much stress and anxiety as the road to the Kentucky Derby.'''

Let's see, spend fortunes so you can aggravate yourself and walk around in a fog. And if you think it's hard on the humans, look what it does to the horses. Every year, many become casualties to illness or injury. This year, the marquee victims were Uncle Mo, The Factor, To Honor and Serve and Toby's Corner. Even the ones who wear the garland of roses suffer. The last two Derby winners, Mine That Bird and Super Saver, never won again.

"I have shirts from all of the Derbys and Preaknesses, with all of the horses listed,'' LaPenta said. "And every once in a while, I'll look at all the names, and 90 percent of them you never hear of again.'''

America's best trainer, Todd Pletcher, endured nine years of frustration before Super Saver got him off the Derby schneid last spring. Yet the week before, he took a brutal jolt when Eskendereya, who would have been the overwhelming favorite, suffered a career-ending injury. The Derby demons got Pletcher again when an undiagnosed internal ailment forced him to scratch Uncle Mo on Friday.

Graham Motion trains Toby's Corner, who upset Uncle Mo in the Wood Memorial. Fate also singled out Motion for cruel but not that unusual punishment when Toby's Corner went lame Monday and was withdrawn.

"It's like getting a kick in the stomach,'' Motion said. "It's so hard to enjoy because you just know things like this are around the corner.''

But as the late, great Woody Stephens used to say, "Luck does take some funny turns,'' and it did a 180 for Motion. No way did he expect his 20-1 shot, Animal Kingdom, to win the Derby in his first race on dirt.

"This is just extraordinary,'' said Motion, a transplanted Englishman who won America's Race in his third try. "He's just a magnificent animal.''

Kelly Breen saddled Pants on Fire, who finished ninth. Breen made his Derby debut in 2009 with West Side Bernie (ninth) and Atomic Rain (16th).

"Once you've been there,'' Breen said, "all you want to do is get back. To be able to say you were in the Kentucky Derby is one thing, but the walk over from the backstretch -- to have this building six stories high and people watching you from every balcony -- it's the pinnacle of horse racing.

"If you can't get excited when you're walking your horse over for the Kentucky Derby, there's something wrong with you.''

Nothing beats an overpowering rush, regardless of the risk and the cost. That's glorious and insane, just like the Derby.