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Kentucky Derby remains elusive holy grail for jockeys, trainers

Justify, the favorite, walks to the track during

Justify, the favorite, walks to the track during the morning training for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 1, 2018, in Louisville, Kentucky. Credit: Getty Images / Andy Lyons

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The Kentucky Derby compels people with virtually no interest in racing to bet on names and numbers. Serious horseplayers obsess over the past performances, and finding the winner is an ego boost remembered for decades. For those who make their living in the sport, Derby glory is the ultimate achievement that eludes all but a few and makes even the great ones suffer.

Pat Day and Laffit Pincay Jr. were among the 20th century’s greatest riders, and they were 1-for-22 and 1-for-21, respectively, in the big race. Day, the undisputed king of Churchill Downs, didn’t become “Derby Day” until his 10th attempt.

Pincay, who was 0-for-10 entering the 1984 Derby, tells this story on himself: “That day I said, ‘God, I never asked you to help me win a race, but if you could give me a little push, I’d appreciate it.’ ” Swale didn’t need any divine assistance and cruised by 3 1⁄4 lengths, but Pincay wasn’t taking any chances.

Javier Castellano, who swept the past four Eclipse Awards, is the best active jockey riding a Derby oh-fer. On Saturday, Audible will be his 12th Derby mount. “Every single Derby, I come by and ask the winning jockey how it feels,” Castellano said. He’d love to be the guy being asked.

Trainer Bobby Frankel won almost every major race but went 0-for-8 in the Derby. It’s a similar story for Kiaran McLaughlin (0-for-7), who will try to break through with long shot Enticed. McLaughlin, a 57-year-old Garden City resident, grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, about 70 miles from Churchill. When he was 12, he decided he wanted to train thoroughbreds.

“I think winning the Derby is everyone’s dream when you get into the business, whether you’re a hot walker, exercise rider, jockey, trainer or owner,” McLaughlin said. “It’s been my dream since I was old enough to know about horse racing. It means a lot to everybody. It’s the Super Bowl of our industry.”

Mark Casse (0-for-5) will run long shot Flameaway. He also made his career choice at 12, after traveling to Louisville with his father, Norman, and seeing Secretariat dominate the 1973 Derby. Like McLaughlin, Casse has trained national champions and collected trophies at tracks throughout North America and overseas, but not the solid gold one awarded on the first Saturday in May.

“I think the Kentucky Derby drives everything,” Casse said. “I know it’s driven me for 40 years. It’s always been a driving force. There’s only one Kentucky Derby.

“You only need to be around for Derby week and have a contender to understand what the Derby means, not just to trainers, but to the world. If you talk to anybody who’s hardly ever heard anything about horse racing, I can promise you one thing: They will have heard of the Kentucky Derby.”

Attending a Derby tops the bucket list of racing fans, and despite the mob scene of 165,000 and exorbitant admission, seat and hotel prices, it’s a must. Dawn at the Downs is a magnet during Derby week, when you can wander the backstretch and savor the scene. Many visitors look like they have entered horse heaven, gazing reverently at the Twin Spires and hoarding photos on cell phones.

Yet there’s also a dark side to the Run for the Roses, because many horses are ruined because they’re not ready for the 1 1⁄4-mile rodeo that four-time winner Bob Baffert calls “a brutal race.”

To Keith Desormeaux, pushing too hard too soon makes no sense.

“When you get this Derby fever thing, you’ve really got to try to put a practical spin on things and not get too excited,” said Desormeaux, who will saddle long shot My Boy Jack. “If my horse was dropping weight or if his attitude went sour, I wouldn’t run him.

“There’s plenty of racing down the line. The Kentucky Derby is not the end-all.’’

True, but when the gates open, nobody feels that way.

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