LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Another opening, another show. That is the way Tommy Valando, the 69-year-old owner of Fly So Free, sees today's Kentucky Derby.
Valando comes by the show-biz analogy naturally, because most of his life he has been either on Tin Pan Alley, plugging songs and giving Frank Sinatra and Perry Como momentum in their careers; or on Broadway, where his hits include "A Little Night Music," "Zorba" and "Cabaret."
Hal Prince, a director, is one of Valando's guests today as the owner, who could pass for a former jockey, tries to win the Kentucky Derby with Fly So Free, who was the 5-2 favorite on the morning line and then dropped to the third choice at 5-1, behind Hansel and Strike The Gold, after Friday's final preliminary wagering at Churchill Downs.
Valando bought Fly So Free by accident. In 1989, after dabbling with a syndicate that raced horses, he decided to spend $100,000 or so at the Keeneland yearling sales. The first horse he bought, a colt sired by Well Decorated, cost $35,000, so he told Mike Ryan, the bloodstock agent who was doing his bidding, to buy a second horse. That one, a son of Time For A Change, turned out to be Fly So Free, who cost $80,000.
A man used to professional roller coaster rides, Valando was spoiled early by Fly So Free. The chestnut colt won his first race, and before last year was over, he had won the Champagne Stakes and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Belmont Park, clinching the Eclipse Award as best male 2-year-old.
Fly So Free kept Valando in the ozone early this year. Trainer Scotty Schulhofer shifted the horse to Florida, where Fly So Free became only the the third horse to sweep the Gulfstream Park triple for 3-year-olds, winning the Hutcheson, the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby.
But just as every show isn't a hit, few horses go on winning forever. The 3-10 favorite in the Blue Grass, Fly So Free accounted for a lot of mutuel ticket litter around Keeneland on April 13, when he finished three lengths behind the late-running Strike The Gold.
"Racing is just like the theater," Valando said the other morning at Fly So Free's barn at Churchill Downs. "Going to a race is like renting Sardi's for an opening-night party. You go to the restaurant after the show, and then you sit there, waiting for the early editions (of the newspapers) to come. If the critics don't like you--or if your horse doesn't do so good--then the party's over. Everybody's gone. Nobody wants to sit around celebrating a disappointment."
Whether Fly So Free completes the trip from ecstasy to disappointment and back will be determined in about two minutes this afternoon before a crowd of 125,000 that will see the 117th Derby.
The consensus is Fly So Free's only serious contenders are Best Pal, the gelding from California; Strike The Gold, trying to show that he still has his Blue Grass lightning; and Hansel, the good-looking colt who has run only one dull race, the day he bled from the lungs in Fly So Free's Fountain of Youth victory.
There was backstretch buzzing earlier this week when Fly So Free worked a half-mile in 46 3/5 seconds, a couple of seconds faster than Schulhofer wanted.
"Maybe it'll be a poor rehearsal but a great show," Valando said. "It was scary how fast the horse worked. The exercise rider told Scotty that he just couldn't hold him to slow the horse down."
Fly So Free has never done things the easy way. In Florida, he gave jockey Jose Santos trouble by trying to pull up when he thought the race was history.
Schulhofer is more concerned about Fly So Free's No. 1 post position today than anything else.
After so many hits for Fly So Free, the recent miss lingers in the minds of many. But not Schulhofer.
"I'm throwing out the Blue Grass," he said. "Just because we didn't win doesn't mean I've lost any confidence in this horse. He didn't like the (wet) track, and I gave Santos the wrong instructions. He kept the horse under wraps, like I told him, and then the horse didn't want to run at the end."
There's a chance that Churchill Downs will be damp for the Derby. The forecast calls for cloudy skies, temperatures in the 70s and a 50% chance of thunderstorms.
If Fly So Free doesn't win, for whatever reason, Tommy Valando will roll with the punches. Because of show biz, he has the racing game in perspective. When the bad reviews come in, all you do is turn out the lights, just like at Sardi's.