It's a universal story. Jockey meets horse. Horse jilts jockey. Jockey meets another horse and wins the Kentucky Derby.
If that's the way the script reads this year on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs, I hope you have your money down on Chris McCarron and Straight Man.
In case you haven't been following the melodrama this week from Santa Anita, here's the short version:
Trainer Bob Baffert took McCarron off General Challenge, the second favorite in Saturday's Santa Anita Derby and potentially a favorite in the Kentucky Derby, and replaced him with Gary Stevens.
McCarron's agent, Scott McClellan, believing his client had a commitment from Baffert to ride General Challenge, confronted the trainer. One word led to another and Baffert shoved McClellan in the back.
McClellan and McCarron protested to the stewards, who urged them to reach a settlement with Baffert. They did, eliciting a promise from Baffert that he will somehow right the wrong in the future.
As a start, Baffert said McCarron can ride Straight Man, an excellent 3-year-old although not for certain a Kentucky Derby starter.
If racetrack karma is up to its old tricks, McCarron will ride Straight Man at Churchill Downs and beat General Challenge by a nose. Better yet, McCarron will decline a ride on Straight Man, take the reins of a horse not trained by Baffert and beat General Challenge by a nose.
Now here's a variation on the theme:
Horse meets jockey. Jockey jilts horse. Horse meets another jockey and wins the Kentucky Derby.
That occurred only two years ago. Again, McCarron played a leading role. He was Baffert's choice to ride Silver Charm, but, torn by loyalty to two trainers, McCarron chose the other one, Ron McAnally, and selected Hello as his Derby horse.
Hello met with a tragic ending a couple of months after an eighth-place finish at Churchill Downs, but Stevens rode Silver Charm to victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and, over the last two years, $7 million in purses.
This jockeying for position by not only jockeys but also trainers and owners is all part of the Kentucky Derby fever that hits everyone who is seriously involved in the sport at this time of year.
Sometimes, as was with the case with Baffert and McClellan, the temperature rises higher than at others.
No matter how much status is associated with the Preakness, the Belmont, the lucrative handicaps at tracks around the country and the Breeders' Cup races, the Kentucky Derby remains horse racing's Super Bowl.
"That's the biggest race for all the jockeys," David Flores said this week. "The crowd, the song, everything, it's unbelievable."
Flores rode Silver Charm and Real Quiet early but was taken off both by Baffert before the Kentucky Derbys they won for other jockeys.
"That was not my time," Flores said.
But this is. He said that he is confident Baffert will leave him on his other Santa Anita Derby horse, Prime Timber, through the Kentucky Derby.
Nevertheless, Flores is keeping his fingers crossed.
Of the 12 to 15 horses that can be counted on to enter, no more than half a dozen are considered legitimate contenders. Trainers are under tremendous pressure to find the right jockeys for those horses; agents are under tremendous pressure to find the right horses for their jockeys.
It often seems like a high-stakes game of musical chairs. Giving all the jockeys out there hope, the music sometimes stops at the damnedest places.
Eddie Delahoussaye can tell you about that.
In 1982, Gato Del Sol's connections wanted to take Delahoussaye off the horse about 10 days before the Derby because of what they considered a bad ride in the Bluegrass Stakes prep race.
They offered Bill Shoemaker the mount, but, to his credit, he said that wouldn't be fair to Delahoussaye and declined. Delahoussaye stayed on the horse and won his first Derby.
One year later, trainer David Cross offered his outstanding 3-year-old, Sunny's Halo, to Angel Cordero Jr. But when Cordero asked for a $25,000 retainer and a private jet to take him to and from Kentucky, Cross withdrew the offer and gave the ride to Delahoussaye. He became only the second jockey since 1902--and the most recent--to win back-to-back Kentucky Derbys.
By 1988, that earned him nothing more than an audition before trainer Louis Roussel on Risen Star. Delahoussaye passed the test and rode Risen Star to third place in the Kentucky Derby and first in the Preakness and Belmont.
But then Roussel didn't want to pay Delahoussaye his rightful share of the bonus that Risen Star won for his extraordinary Triple Crown campaign and the jockey had to threaten the trainer with a lawsuit to get his money.
Usually, these disputes don't go to court.
Usually, they don't go to the stewards, either.
"We go by word of mouth out here and that's usually good enough," McClellan said Thursday, explaining his decision to take his complaint with Baffert to the stewards. "But when it's not, you have to do something."
I talked to Shoemaker in the paddock the day before. He sided with McCarron.
But he was concerned about the repercussions of pursuing a fight with the country's No. 1 trainer.
"Baffert has a lot of nice horses," Shoemaker said. "If McCarron doesn't work something out, he won't be riding any of them."
So they worked something out.
The good jockeys and the good trainers usually do.
Corey Nakatani was riding Desert Hero, the Santa Anita Derby favorite and another leading Kentucky Derby contender, for his father-in-law, trainer Wally Dollase. But Dollase was fired a couple of weeks ago by the horse's owners. Now Nakatani is riding Desert Hero for Richard Mandella.
It's more than a contract that is keeping Nakatani on the horse. A chance to win the Kentucky Derby is thicker than blood.
Randy Harvey can be reached at his e-mail address: email@example.com.