In the end, it unfolded as one of the woolliest, most memorable finishes in the 122-year history of the Kentucky Derby. In the end, for the first time in 37 years—since Tomy Lee whipped Sword Dancer by the flare of a nostril in 1959—the Derby was a tub-thumper with a result too close to call. In the end, as they rushed under the line together at Churchill Downs, Jerry Bailey, outside on Grindstone, and Chris McCarron, rail-riding on Cavonnier, stood in the irons and glanced over at each other.
"Who won it?" Bailey yelled.
"I think you did," said McCarron.
Up in the box seats, as the two horses galloped out to the clubhouse turn, the trainer of Cavonnier, Bob Baffert, was smiling as he appeared to be accepting congratulations from those around him. Moments later, down on the racetrack, a grim-faced D. Wayne Lukas, the trainer of Grindstone, was waving off the jubilant cries of "We did it!" from among his army of stablehands. "I don't know," he kept saying. "It was right on the wire!"
After an agonizing 4½-minute wait, while the placing judges awaited the photo of the finish, the whole of the Downs erupted as Grindstone's number was flashed in first place. He had won the mile-and-a-quarter classic by about four inches. The pandemonium that descended around Lukas was as much a tribute to him as it was a celebration of the horse. There is a Kentucky Derby winner every year, of course, but what Lukas had just pulled off was unprecedented.
Lukas had saddled his second straight Derby winner and his sixth consecutive winner of a Triple Crown race, a historic sweep that may never be surpassed—unless, that is, the 60-year-old Lukas comes back to win the Preakness on May 18. Grindstone's victory came two years after Lukas's Tabasco Cat won the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes and a year after his Thunder Gulch won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont, with a Preakness victory by his Timber Country sandwiched in between.
In clinching this Derby, Lukas got a superlative assist from Bailey, who chose Saturday afternoon to convene a clinic on how to ride a horse through and around a shifting herd of 18 other colts. Just 5½ weeks after steering the mighty Cigar to victory in the $4 million Dubai World Cup, the horse's 14th consecutive triumph under Bailey, the 38-year-old rider turned in the performance of a lifetime, an exquisite display of skill, patience and finesse that left him on this day at the pinnacle of his profession. "An absolutely textbook ride," said Lukas. "Jerry Bailey needs to put that in his highlight film and show it to his grandchildren. You don't ride a racehorse any better than he rode this one."
The triumph was even sweeter for Lukas because Grindstone belongs to W.T. Young, the 77-year-old owner-breeder who stuck by Lukas through his personal and financial travails of three years ago—that 31-month period when Lukas failed to win a single Grade I stake and came perilously close to bankruptcy, and those trying weeks in December 1993 when Wayne's son Jeff nearly died of head injuries he sustained when Tabasco Cat, one of Young's horses, trampled him at Santa Anita. "Mr. Young quietly let me weather the storms," Lukas says. "This Derby was the high point of my training career: I was able to stand in that box with him when he won."
In fact, Young had quite as much to do with the outcome of this year's race as did Lukas and Bailey. Four years ago the estate of Frances Genter decided to donate a breeding right to one of its stallions, Unbridled, to the Kentucky Derby Museum, which would then sell it to raise money. (Genter was the diminutive 90-year-old lady into whose ear trainer Carl Nafzgar called the running of the 1990 Derby, which Unbridled won.) The estate stipulated that the breeding right sell for no less than $30,000—about twice what it was worth on the market at the time. In what Young now calls "a moment of inspiration," he agreed to pay the $30,000, and in the spring of '92 he sent one of his broodmares, Buzz My Bell, to the stallion's court. The foal of that mating, Unbridled's first offspring, was a dark bay that Young named Grindstone. "A beautiful colt," recalls Young. "Perhaps the best-looking yearling we had that year."
He grew into a well-built, attractive horse who showed early flashes of speed. On June 11, 1995, at Belmont Park, he broke his maiden in his first start, winning by five lengths, and three weeks later ran credibly in the Bashford Manor Stakes at Churchill Downs, finishing fourth but beaten by only a length and a quarter. That ended his 2-year-old campaign. "We did arthroscopic surgery on his knee," Lukas says. "Then we brought him back slowly this spring." Indeed, after Grindstone ran second in his first start of 1996, at Santa Anita, Lukas dispatched him from California to Louisiana under the care of son Jeff. He promptly won the March 17 Louisiana Derby by 3½ lengths and came back a month later to finish second in the Arkansas Derby, beaten by just a neck. Jeff and Wayne agreed: Grindstone was ready for the Kentucky Derby.