Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 12, 2011

In Louisville, Good Guys Finish First

There were so many compelling stories in the run up to last weekend’s Kentucky Derby, fans could pick and choose which human interest drama and potential fairy tale ending they wanted to follow.

Among the jockeys there was Kerwin Clark, a 52-year old with more than thirty years of experience, finally getting his first mount in horse racing’s premiere event aboard Decisive Moment. A parallel tale was that of Jon Court, also past his 50th birthday and with all of 99 career wins. He too had his first ever ride in the Derby, with Archarcharch. Court’s story was enriched by the fact that William “Jinks” Fires, the trainer of Archarcharch, was the jockey’s father-in-law. Of course there was also Calvin Borel who was virtually unknown to casual fans until he guided Street Sense to victory along the rail at the 2007 Derby. Borel is anything but anonymous now, having won again in 2009 with the improbable long-shot Mine That Bird, and then a third time last year aboard Super Saver. This year Borel was going for three in a row and four wins in five years on Twice The Appeal.

But clearly fans’ favorite story among the riders was that of Anna Napravnik. Just 23 years old, she burst on to the racing scene in 2005 when she came home a winner in her very first career start. This year she was the top rider at Fair Grounds Race Course where she captured the Louisiana Derby aboard Pants On Fire. Now at Churchill Downs she was only the sixth woman to ride in the Derby. Bettors loved the appealing story line of Napravnik becoming the first woman jockey to win the race. A 20-1 long shot in the morning line, on the strength of that sentimental fan support Pants On Fire broke from the gate as the 8-1 second choice behind favorite Dialed In.

The potential for a woman breaking through wasn’t limited to the riders, since two of the nineteen horses that went to the post were trained by women. Kathleen O’Connell, last year’s top trainer at Calder Race Course in the Miami suburbs saddled Watch Me Go, who won the Tampa Bay Derby in March only to stagger home sixth in the Illinois Derby in April. Like Clark, Court, and Napravnik, the veteran O’Connell, who has saddled more than 10,000 horses in her career with 1,300 victories and $21.5 million in earnings, saw her name for the first time in the fine print of Churchill Downs’ program for Saturday’s all-important 11th race.

But O’Connell and all of the male trainers were overshadowed by the remarkable story of Kathy Ritvo, the trainer of Mucho Macho Man. Born into a racing family, she saw both her horse owner father and jockey brother die of heart disease. A decade ago Ritvo learned that she too was afflicted, and for years her condition steadily worsened. Finally in 2008 she spent six months in a Florida hospital before finally receiving a life saving heart transplant. Saved from certain death, Ritvo remains determined to make the most of and savor her second chance at life. Fittingly enough, the colt that Ritvo was preparing to saddle for the Derby was born while Ritvo was waiting for a new heart, and for several agonizing minutes showed no signs of life. Just when those present were prepared to declare the foal dead, it started to breathe and sprang to its feet.

All of these wonderful stories and more had been told and retold by the time the field was loaded into the main and auxiliary starting gates at the top of Churchill Downs’ long home stretch. All broke cleanly, a result never guaranteed with such a large field. A record crowd of almost 165,000 screamed with excitement as front-running Shackleford led the cavalry charge past the grandstand’s famous twin spires even as the favorite Dialed In fell all the way to the back of the pack. A mile later, as the horses made the final turn for home Shackleford still clung to a narrow lead as Nehro and Comma To The Top made their moves on the outside. As they galloped down the stretch amid the impossible din the reality of every Kentucky Derby was at hand. For all of the feel-good stories, in a fraction over two minutes all but one potential fairy tale was about to end unhappily.

In the end, as often happens, the happy ending of a win in the Kentucky Derby belonged to none of those who had been the focus of most of the pre-race attention. Charging on the outside and pulling clear in the final yards to win by almost three lengths was Animal Kingdom, ridden by John Velazquez and trained by Graham Motion. Sent off at better than 20-1, neither horse nor jockey nor trainer may have been much talked about in the days before the Derby. But by getting under the wire first Animal Kingdom and his connections wrote a story about long-deserved good karma and a worthy approach to horse racing.

The good karma belonged to jockey Velazquez. Twice the winner of the Eclipse Award as American racing’s top jockey and with 4,500 career victories, Velazquez had never won the Derby. In 2009 he was the jockey for pre-race favorite Quality Road, who he guided to victory in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and the Florida Derby. But Quality Road suffered two injuries and missed the entire Triple Crown. Last year Velazquez had the mount on Eskendereya, who was the strong pre-race favorite after winning the Fountain of Youth and romping in the Wood Memorial. But the horse suffered swelling in his legs after the Wood and was retired. Finally this year “Johnny V” was the jockey for Uncle Mo, whose dominant 2-year old campaign made him the heavy favorite in early handicapping. But for the third year in a row Velazquez saw his Derby mount scratched when Uncle Mo was pulled from the field on Friday.

But on Wednesday Robby Albarado, Animal Kingdom’s regular rider, suffered a broken nose in a racing accident. Uncertain how long he would take to recover and obviously wanting to take no chances with racing’s biggest event at hand, Animal Kingdom’s connections saw that Velazquez was available and made the hard call to replace Albarado. On Friday John Velazquez looked at strike three. On Saturday he was a Kentucky Derby champion.

The worthy approach is that of trainer Graham Motion. He came to this country from his native England three decades ago, but he has never abandoned his European approach to handling horses. That means thoroughbreds galloping along wooded trails or across fields instead of constantly running around dirt ovals. But more important, it also means the limited and judicious use of medications. Of the top 20 U.S. trainers in earnings in 2010, only two were not cited at some point in the year for a medication violation. Graham Motion was one of the two. That’s really not surprising, since Motion has never been cited for a positive drug test on any of the horses in his charge. In Europe that wouldn’t be an especially big deal. In this country, where horse racing has become as much about pharmaceuticals as pedigree and where too many horse trainers seem to subscribe to the hackneyed old stock car mantra of “if you ain’t cheatin’ you ain’t tryin’,” Motion’s record made headlines this week.

It is worth noting that horse racing is alive and well in Europe. In this country, notwithstanding the glamour of the Kentucky Derby and the Triple Crown, the sport teeters on the edge of survival. One can only hope that more American horsemen will pause for a moment and see the obvious lesson in that.

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