LOUISVILLE, Ky. — When he was still a candidate earlier this year for chief of police in Louisville, Capt. Steve Thompson was asked by a reporter whether he'd rather have that job or win the Kentucky Derby.
Considering that the Louisville police, like their brethren in Los Angeles, are making the wrong kinds of headlines these days, Thompson thought the answer should be obvious.
"Next question," he said.
Next thing he knew, he no longer was a candidate for police chief.
"I guess somebody didn't have a sense of humor," he said Thursday at Churchill Downs, where he worked for 29 consecutive years during Kentucky Derby week as one of Louisville's finest.
Until this year.
This year, Thompson, commander of the criminal investigation and bomb squad, is on vacation from the force, serving instead as security chief for trainer Bob Baffert's Barn 33.
He also is the namesake of the most valuable property inside the barn, Captain Steve, the fifth-choice at 8-1 on the morning line for Saturday's Derby.
You want to know how racehorses get their names?
Early in the morning the day after the 1997 Derby, Mike Pegram, the owner who brought Baffert into the thoroughbred business, was at Louisville International Airport, believing he was about to catch a flight to Phoenix. He had a horse running there that afternoon.
Pegram had a carry-on bag filled with money from his exacta winnings the day before on winner Silver Charm and Captain Bodgit. He also had some unopened gifts from his girlfriend. Wrapped inside one was a .357 magnum handgun.
But he didn't know it until he sent the bag through the metal detector.
"They cuffed me pretty good behind my back," Pegram said this week, adding that he was told en route to the Jefferson County jail in a black-and-white that he was under suspicion for drug running. That's what money and a gun in a suitcase mean to police.
Allowed to keep his cell phone--perhaps because he was in a cell--Pegram called Baffert.
"It wasn't one of Mike's proudest moments," Baffert said.
Baffert, who less than 24 hours earlier had won the Derby with Silver Charm, figured he had some pull and called the governor. The governor said he couldn't help.
That's when Julian "Buck" Wheat, Churchill Downs' director of horsemen's relations who is known as the mayor of the backside, had an idea. He told Baffert to call Thompson.
If anyone knows how to operate in Louisville, it's Thompson.
His first year working the Derby, 1972, he was assigned to guard the blanket of roses awarded to winner Riva Ridge's rider, Ron Turcotte. The jockey gave Thompson a rose. A fan on the other side of the rail offered him $100 for it.
"I've got to get me some more of those roses," Thompson said.
When Baffert called, Thompson was at Sunday Mass. He went outside, called some judges he knew and had Pegram sprung before the basket was passed for the second collection.
Charges were dropped. Pegram proceeded to Phoenix without the gun but with the money.
He told Thompson he would be eternally grateful, promising to name a horse after him.
Thompson was amused but didn't give it another thought until a year later, when Pegram brought one of his horses, Real Quiet, to the Derby and won.
What are Captain Steve's chances?
Thompson believes they're good, sensing an omen in the horse's dosage figure--quantifying the quality of his breeding--of 3.57. Get it? A .357 magnum?
For different reasons, Baffert agrees.
Captain Steve finished third last month in the Santa Anita Derby behind two other horses here, The Deputy and War Chant. But Baffert had said beforehand that Captain Steve didn't run well on the Arcadia track and probably wouldn't like the Santa Anita Derby.
"Then why run him?" Baffert was asked.
"Because I like it," Baffert said. "The horse doesn't get to vote."
But, considering Captain Steve's win at Churchill Downs last November in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club, Baffert said he knew that the horse would like it here.
"He loves this surface, and he's the one horse in the Derby who has demonstrated that he really moves up here," Pegram said. "The reason I came here with Real Quiet was because he liked the course, and that's how I feel about Captain Steve.
"We feel like we've got people on our home court now. But it ain't a science--A plus B does not equal C."
That has been confirmed for Pegram since he bought two yearlings at the Fasig-Tipton sale in Kentucky in 1998. One cost $70,000. He named that one Captain Steve. The other, supposedly the better one, cost $140,000. He named that one Buckwheat, for Julian Wheat.
Buckwheat ran so poorly that Pegram sold him. The horse is entered this weekend in a $10,000 race at Seattle's Emerald Downs under the name Fat Eddie.
Randy Harvey can be reached at his e-mail address: email@example.com.
Saturday, 2:25 p.m.
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