BY JIM WELLS
20,770 at Canterbury Park for Derby Day…third largest crowd in track history
The grandest day in North American horse racing is not always a participant activity for the men and women who make their livings in the sport. They are simply too busy training horses, cleaning stalls and galloping their stock to spend much time analyzing the field of horses and riders who run in the Kentucky Derby.
“I’ve just been too busy to think about it,” said longtime trainer Troy Bethke. “Too busy to know who’s running.”
Hall of Fame trainer Bernell Rhone has kept a stable at Canterbury since the advent of horse racing in Minnesota, in 1985. Rhone leaves Canterbury each autumn for Florida, where he keeps a stable during the winter months, before returning each spring to Shakopee.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he responded about a Derby favorite Saturday. “I’ll watch the race, but I’m usually too busy training horses to get too involved.”
One of Rhone’s owners seemed a bit surprised when he discovered Rhone’s attitude about the one race even non racing fans can identify. “He asked me who I liked best in the Derby,” Rhone said. “I told him I didn’t have a choice because I was too busy training his horse to worry about it.”
Many of the riders are quite the same, too involved in the routine of their daily lives to spend time analyzing the workdays of riders at other tracks in the nation, even when the subject is Kentucky Derby. Just the same, they are often aware of details surrounding the race.
A group of riders discussed the fate of Corey Lanerie Saturday afternoon. When the pre-race favorite, Omaha Beach, was scratched, Mike Smith, the rider of Triple Crown winner Justify last season, was left without a mount. Lanerie then found himself without a mount when he was replaced by Smith on the Todd Pletcher-trained horse Cutting Humor.
“Nothing to do with Smith or the trainer,” one rider said. “Pletcher said he wanted to keep Corey, but the owners wanted Smith.”
Cutting Humor was a longshot at best to finish in the money Saturday, but that was not the issue with the Canterbury jockeys discussing the situation. “It could have been his (Lanerie’s) one chance to say that he rode in the Kentucky Derby,” one rider said.
Not every trainer or rider has the opportunity to get deeply involved with the Derby details, but the one thing riders all seem to want is the opportunity to say they have ridden in America’s most famous race.
THOSE WHO DO GET INVOLVED
Unlike the men and women who train and ride the horses, horse owners seem to take an active interest in the Kentucky Derby. Take Curtis Sampson, chairman of the Canterbury Park board of directors who breeds and races horses. He seemed enamored of, like so many others, Omaha Beach, the 3-year-old War Front colt who was the Derby favorite before being scratched with a breathing issue. Racing fans were rooting in this case as much for trainer Richard Mandella as they were the horse. Mandella was hoping to add a Derby win to his resume for the Hall of Fame.
“That’s really too bad about Mandella’s horse,” Sampson said. “I guess I’d go now with Improbable, although all three (including Roadster and Game Winner) of Bob Baffert’s horses have a chance.”
Paul Sampson was a fan of Omaha Beach, too, but had to take a new look when the horse was scratched. “It’s wide open now,” he said.
Bruce Meyer, the Oracle of Canterbury, liked Omaha Beach and, like many others, gave him a chance, but liked Tacitus, trained by Bill Mott, all along. By Tapit from the First Defence mare Close Hatches, Tacitus has been No. 1 on the Oracle’s list because of his breeding and ability to overcome trouble in a race.
As she watched the pre-race line change throughout the day, program coordinator and placing judge Peggy Davis became a bit dismayed about the wagering aspect on her choice, like Meyer….Tacitus. But as the betting on that horse increased she was well aware of the downside, too. Even with a winner, not much of a return.
SLIPPED THROUGH OUR FINGERS
No one watched the Kentucky Derby at Canterbury Park on Saturday with more interest than Larry Cronin, a local horse owner with a special rooting interest. An hour before the race on Saturday, Cronin discussed his attempt to buy Maximum Security after he broke his maiden in a $16,000 race on Dec. 20, the first of four consecutive wins culminating with the Grade I Florida Derby on Mar. 19.
“I offered the owners $30,000 after that $16,000 race, but never got a return call,” Cronin said.
When the colt, by New Year’s Day, hit the wire first Saturday, Cronin bolted from his seat on the third floor of the racetrack to reach out to a friend who had wagered $800 to win on the horse, sent off at 9/2. “He’s a stone cold runner, isn’t he,” said Cronin.
He’s still a stone cold runner, but he was taken down for interference in the race, and the win shifted to Country House, trained by Bill Mott.
Opportunities are often fleeting in the game of horse racing. Sometimes, so are apparent victories.
TIP SHEET, ANYONE ?
“We got ourselves a great day… light breeze, lots of sun. You can call this a Chamber of Commerce special.”
That assessment was delivered in the smooth, dulcet tones forever associated with former paddock analyst Kevin Gorg, who spent Kentucky Derby Saturday in the pressbox, regaling the gathered group with his insight on the day’s races and on his concerns for Alexis Pearson, the woman who sells his tipsheet, Gorg’s Power Plays. He was concerned that most of the young men circling her stand on the first floor of the grandstand were not truly interested in buying his sheet and even more concerned about any of them who might have made more than one purchase.
Gorg was not on hand for the Kentucky Derby. He watched the race from the comfort of his home, having returned in time to let out his two dogs, Brooks and Fenway. If you can guess the derivation of those names, you might be the grand prize winner of a high five from Gorg himself.