LEXINGTON, Ky. — This is where trainer Eddie Gregson came in.
Gregson came in, that is, to run second with Gato Del Sol in the 1982 Blue Grass Stakes and then, nine days later, won the Kentucky Derby with the kindly gray who gave Churchill Downs its biggest upset--$44.40--in 15 years.
Now Gregson is back at the Blue Grass, knocking on the door with a 3-year-old colt named Icy Groom.
This Gregson runner is a chestnut, not a gray; he runs from just off the pace, not from back in the weeds as Gato Del Sol did, and his credentials going into today's Keeneland race are not as impressive as those that Gato took into the Derby four years ago.
Gato Del Sol had only two pre-Derby wins, but one at least had been in the Del Mar Futurity as a 2-year-old. Icy Groom also has just two wins, but the only stakes victory has been the minor Bradbury at Santa Anita in March.
Gregson said Wednesday that this year's group of Derby hopefuls is stronger than the bunch that Gato Del Sol beat in 1982. Gregson has seen Snow Chief, the Derby favorite, up close and he believes.
Icy Groom ran against Snow Chief in the Santa Anita Derby April 6 and finished second.
"I almost skipped that race to bring Icy Groom to Keeneland for the Lexington Stakes (April 12)," Gregson said. "But the horse had run well in the Bradbury (at Santa Anita, winning by 2 lengths), so I was pumped up. I wanted to see how he would compare to Snow Chief. I found out. Six lengths."
So why is Gregson running Icy Groom in the Blue Grass? A top performance here today would only mean another collision with Snow Chief a week from Saturday in the Kentucky Derby, and the way Snow Chief has trained since the Santa Anita Derby, he doesn't seem to have lost his sharpness.
Gregson referred to his trump card--the difference in race tracks in California and Kentucky.
There may be an off track for the Blue Grass, and Icy Groom can handle mud. And if the Churchill Downs track is deep and cuppy, as it was for Gato Del Sol, Gregson believes that that will also work to his advantage.
"These tracks should move my horse up," Gregson said. "The thing that worries me regarding the Derby, though, is that Churchill Downs' track isn't the same every year. If it's the kind of track they had last year, I'm in trouble."
Last year, Churchill Downs' surface was deep during the week before the Derby, but on race day it resembled the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Spend a Buck won the race, running the third-fastest time in Derby history, but there were some ouchy horses the next day.
Skywalker, winner of the Santa Anita Derby, ran sixth, suffered a leg injury and was out of action for almost a year. Tank's Prospect, seventh in the Derby, won the Preakness two weeks later but broke down in the Belmont Stakes, never to run again, and there was suspicion that his leg problems started at Churchill Downs.
Butch Lehr, the track superintendent at Churchill Downs, is said to be sensitive about the criticism he took from trainers for the brick-hard track. The track is not likely to be that hard this year.
Eddie Gregson sure hopes that's the case.
"Assuming he runs well in the Blue Grass, I'm going to ship Icy Groom (the 70 miles) over to Louisville on Monday," Gregson said. "When we get there, I'm going to tell them what kind of track we'd like, if it'll do any good."
Long before the 1982 Derby, Gregson wanted to map out a 3-year-old schedule for Gato Del Sol and sent several years' worth of California trainers' pre-Derby plans through a computer to see if there was a common thread.
"What I found was that there was no pattern at all," Gregson said. "You just have to do what you think is the best thing for the individual horse."
The best thing for Gato Del Sol, after he had run fourth in the Santa Anita Derby, seemed to be the Blue Grass. The track was fast at Keeneland, but in finishing 5 1/2 lengths behind Linkage, Gato came back to the barn an exhausted horse.
"He was dead tired," Gregson said. "But I got lucky. I had been training him lightly, so the combination of that and the tough race in the Blue Grass made him tight (fit) for the Derby."
Snow Chief and Badger Land, the Flamingo Stakes winner who is generally considered the second choice to win the Derby, will be running for the first time in a month May 3. No horse has won the Derby with that much rest since Needles took the roses in 1956.
"It's very daring, what those two horses are trying to do," Gregson said. "Wayne (Lukas, who trains Badger Land) is in a position where he has to do it, because his horse had three 1 1/8-mile races in little more than a month.
"I'm sure Mel (Stute, trainer of Snow Chief) knows his horse. Shipping the horse from California to Gulfstream Park for the Florida Derby (the win being Snow Chief's last start) and then bringing him back to California before going to Kentucky--that's all radical, too. What he's doing is not traditional, and that makes it a risky thing to do."