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SATURDAY JOURNAL

Her Derby Dream

She had the horse. Now, she needs that break to get past a crucial trial race.

May 01, 1999|NORA ZAMICHOW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Now, watching her horse fall behind, Lewis began to chant, first slowly and quietly, then louder and urgently.

"Com'on Cap! Com'on Cap! Com'on Cap!"

She was not like some trainers, who spent more time with a cell phone at the track than in the barn with the horses. She enjoyed being shin-deep in golden straw in her horses' stalls, wrapping their leg bandages with immaculate care. She'd help out at feeding time, using her bare hand to mix the warm mash of oats and molasses. In the privacy of the barn, Capsized was "Baby" or "Big Guy" when she stroked his neck or scratched behind his ears. She was reserved and honest. When she talked with reporters, she laid out her thoughts. It made Quartucci roll his eyes. It was like a golfer revealing his weaknesses before a tournament.

The knock against women trainers is they baby their horses. Lewis cried retelling how a colt broke his leg two years ago and had to be euthanized. But she prided herself on slicing through tough decisions. With a higher-profile horse, pressure grew. If Capsized didn't race well on this day, a number of trainers would phone the horse's owners, offering to take over, promising they could do better. Since only about 9% of trainers are women, gender was never forgotten. She'd been called "little girl" by a starting gate attendant and mistaken for a spectator by a security guard who cautioned her to avoid getting too close to the big horses.

*

At the half-mile pole, Capsized passed Walk That Walk. But Solis worried. The colt didn't feel powerful.

Solis bided his time, angling out after sticking close to the rail to save ground. He wanted to conserve Capsized's final burst of speed. The horses were running harder but they were still about two seconds slower than during the previous two Santa Anita Derbies.

*

Solis, who had yet to win a Kentucky Derby, believed Capsized would be his ticket. This colt had a stride that seemed endless. He had enough raw talent to remind Solis of Captain Bodgit, whom he rode in the 1997 Kentucky Derby, finishing second.

In February, Capsized had run impressively with Solis aboard in the 1-mile San Rafael Stakes, placing third, beaten by less than half a length by a then-obscure horse named Desert Hero. Baffert's Prime Timber was second, ahead of Capsized by only a nose.

Capsized won a 1 1/16-mile race at Belmont in October against a solid field and a shorter race at Santa Anita in January. Racing writers and handicappers figured he had potential. The Daily Racing Form and Blood Horse magazine included Capsized among their select list of Kentucky Derby contenders.

Solis had ridden thousands of horses. But occasionally, he rode one that had class--not just physical strength but will, poise, a warrior instinct. Only the best had it. You could feel it when you were on their backs.

In 1996, the year Capsized was born, 32,212 thoroughbred foals were born in North America. Two-thirds of them would race, but only a fraction of a percent would finish first in a graded stake race like the Santa Anita Derby.

This year, 407 horses were nominated as candidates for the 125th running of the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby. After a series of increasingly difficult preparatory races, some horses dropped out because of injuries. In March, Bob Baffert retired Exploit, the Las Vegas oddsmakers' favorite, after the colt broke his knee. Others, like Aristotle, trained by Randy Bradshaw, were eliminated as it became clear they were not distance runners.

Luck matters. "Sometimes you can't fight the Derby gods," said Steve Haskins, national correspondent for Blood Horse magazine.

Everyone on Santa Anita's backside--where the barns are located--knew it. Most could tick off ill-boding signs: shoes or hats on a bed, a single magpie, walking under a ladder or opening an umbrella indoors. Baffert wears a "lucky" tie for big races; his assistant trainer Eoin Harty has a silver crucifix, blessed by the pope when Harty was 14.

In the days before the Santa Anita Derby, Lewis asked her sister to search boxes for her lucky charm: a necklace with a small replica of the Kentucky Derby winner's trophy.

Solis had studied a video of the first race he'd ridden with Capsized, the San Rafael Stakes. He'd been late in asking Capsized for his final burst of speed. Plus, he'd swung wide on the homestretch. This time, he promised, he'd ride better. Eight times, Solis, a boyish-faced Panama native and father of four, had ridden in the Kentucky Derby. Maybe this, he thought, God willing, would be his year.

Prime Timber stayed on the inside. His jockey David Flores was surprised by the sluggish pace. General Challenge galloped easily, stalking the leader. He was racing for the first time in blinkers and jockey Gary Stevens thought this helped the colt stay focused.

Dirt bit into Capsized's face as he tailed the closely knit pack.

Up in the owners' box, Lewis' face seemed drawn. "C'mon, Cap!" she called again. The race was not unfolding to plan.

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