HORSE RACING has benefited in recent years from a succession of appealing Triple Crown story lines that helped elevate the sport for the fan who turns to racing only for a few weeks each spring. Funny Cide's Everyman owners (2003) were followed by Smarty Jones's survival tale ('04), Afleet Alex's connection to the memory of a little girl who had bravely battled cancer ('05), Barbaro's tragic injury in the Preakness ('06) and Street Sense's Kentucky Derby win ('07) for venerable trainer Carl Nafzger and 40-year-old Cajun jockey Calvin Borel.
The tide of serendipity began turning when Curlin won the '07 Preakness; two of his owners had been accused of—and were later found guilty of—bilking clients out of millions, and trainer Steve Asmussen had spent half of the previous year on suspension for illegally drugging his horses. Last year Big Brown won the Derby and the Preakness but left many fans feeling less than celebratory after trainer Rick Dutrow, who has a long history of drug violations (involving himself and his horses), admitted to regularly injecting his horses with then legal anabolic steroids.
The '09 Derby will be run on May 2, and given the news of the last two weeks, racing has an even greater need of a feel-good story. Owner-breeder Ernie Paragallo, who started four horses in the Kentucky Derby from 1996 through 2004, was arrested and charged last Friday with 22 counts of cruelty to animals for neglecting the 177 thoroughbreds on his farm in upstate New York. And California-based Jeff Mullins, who trains likely Kentucky Derby favorite I Want Revenge, was found in possession of a syringe that he reportedly used on Gato Go Win on April 4 at Aqueduct—the same day that I Want Revenge won the Wood Memorial there.
Fortunately, there are likely Derby entries whose backstories could shine a light away from the suspicion and the sport's flagging mainstream relevance. One year after his talented filly Eight Belles was euthanized with two broken ankles following her second-place finish in the Derby, trainer Larry Jones is expected to send Louisiana Derby winner Friesan Fire to the post at Churchill Downs. Friesan Fire prepped for the Derby by sweeping three races at Fair Grounds Racetrack, but he will be coming off a seven-week break. (Jones's other potential Kentucky Derby starter, winter-book favorite Old Fashioned, was injured in a runner-up finish to Papa Clem in last Saturday's Arkansas Derby.)
Tom McCarthy, a 75-year-old retired high school principal, won Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland with General Quarters, whom he claimed last year for $20,000. General Quarters has made 10 starts in less than a year with McCarthy, who also trains the colt, and has steadily improved.
The Derby will have a full field of 20 horses, with others—including possibly the talented Dunkirk—left out because they failed to accrue sufficient graded earnings. Even minus Old Fashioned, the field is regarded as potentially one of the best in the last decade.
After General Quarters's win at stately Keeneland, McCarthy was given a standing ovation. Asked if he had ever expected to saddle a Derby starter, he said, "I was hoping."
His words could describe the state of the sport: hoping for the right kind of Derby winner.
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More Derby news and analysis from Tim Layden.