LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Irishman Aidan O’Brien has almost as many big-race trophies as the Louvre has paintings, and Bob Baffert considers him “the greatest trainer in the world.” But when it comes to the Kentucky Derby, the Wizard of Ballydoyle never has found the magic dust.
O’Brien is 0-for-6 in a race he’s called “a different animal,” maybe because it’s bitten him every time. Last year he was shocked when his highly touted Mendelssohn staggered in last, 53¼ lengths behind Justify. He was knocked around at the start and entering the turn, not unusual treatment in a notoriously rough race.
“In America, dirt racing is very aggressive at the best of times,” O’Brien said, “but when it gets like this, the aggression turns into nearly savagery.”
In the quarter-mile surge to the clubhouse turn, chaos is the natural order of things. Any horse who gets bounced around in this random rodeo rarely runs to his potential.
“When the gates open, crazy things happen,” five-time winner Baffert said. “The Derby is like the Masters; it’s difficult, and everything has to go right. That first 100 yards, it’s like the Indy 500. A lot of moving parts out there.”
The more demanding the quest, the more precious the prize. There’s no race quite like the Derby, which is a good thing. And there’s no trophy more coveted than the 24-karat gold bauble they handed out late Saturday afternoon in Churchill Downs’ infield.
Trainer Dale Romans is 0-for-10 in the Derby, which he sat out this time. “When you have a Derby horse, you walk around all week with this beautiful fantasy,” Romans said. “Then the morning after the race, you go on the backstretch and see all these sad faces.”
America’s Race eluded trainer Shug McGaughey until 2013, when at age 62 he watched Orb go from last to first, splashing through the slop to glory. This year he saddled Code of Honor, who was moved up from third to second after the historic qualification of first-place finisher Maximum Security.
“Sometimes I’ll be driving along and think, ‘Yeah, you won the Derby,’ ‘’ McGaughey said. “It doesn’t wash off. I’d love to win it again. The first one is just the bait to bring you along to the next one.
“This race is the main one, by far.”
Mark Casse is another world-class horseman who has been blanked. He sent out sixth-place finisher War of Will, who was in contention entering the stretch before Maximum Security bothered him. “We’ve won at Royal Ascot and won five Breeders’ Cups,” Casse said, “but this is the one I want.”
Every trainer, jockey and owner feels the same way, but just getting to the Derby is a grueling grind for man and beast. If a horse makes it, race day is a unique endurance test. An hour before post time, the runners are led over from the backstretch in “The Walk.” They pass thousands of screaming fans, many of them drunk. If that doesn’t unhinge them, there’s the claustrophobic paddock, where many thoroughbreds boil over emotionally and lose all chance.
“I think it’s the atmosphere of the day and the 20-horse field,” McGaughey said. “The horse has to handle the week and then be able to handle the day. They’re going to walk over there in front of 160,000. They’ve never done that before, and they’re never going to do that again.”
All too often the horse who finishes first never does that again. Starting in 2001, Derby heroes Monarchos, Barbaro (broke down, 2006 Preakness), Mine That Bird (2009), Super Saver (2010), Orb (2013), Nyquist (2016) and Always Dreaming (2017) were winless for the rest of their careers.
As trainer Steve Asmussen says: “You get paid for what you do, but you pay for what you do.” The price of Derby triumph can be extreme.
Asmussen is second all-time with 8,414 wins but 0-for-20 in the Derby. He looked to have a shot as longshot Long Range Toddy entered the stretch, but he lost all chance when Maximum Security veered out.
“The Kentucky Derby is a huge hole in our resume,” Asmussen said Saturday morning. “And we definitely plan to add it.”
If he ever wins it, that will make all the suffering worthwhile, like the one glorious love affair that cancels all the sad ones. That’s how much that garland of roses means.