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Lady Still in Waiting

Sahadi's Eventful Week Ends With a Disappointing Race and a Search for Answers

May 07, 2000|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — This is what everyone talks about: the long walk, so tense with anticipation, as the horses and their trainers file from the barns to the paddock before the Kentucky Derby, rounding the turn to see the twin spires of Churchill Downs and a crowd of 150,000 waiting.

"Come on, Jenine!" a man called out from the rail at Jenine Sahadi, the trainer of The Deputy and only the 10th woman to saddle a horse for the Derby.

"She's got her game face on," a woman said as Sahadi passed.

This is what no one talks about: the long walk back to the barn after what sometimes is not the most exciting two minutes in sports.

So much buildup, so much preparation. So . . . what happened?

"I never really saw," Sahadi said as she walked back to the barn through the crowd with her husband Ben Cecil's arm around her after The Deputy--the winner of the Santa Anita Derby and the second choice behind winner Fusaichi Pegasus at 9-2--finished 14th.

"I saw them as they went by me, down the backside, and I knew he was going nowhere and I basically quit watching," Sahadi said.

"He did his best. [Jockey Chris McCarron] said he seemed to to be struggling, but we don't know just why yet. He looks like he came out of the race OK."

After such a sub-par performance, a veterinarian was scheduled to examine the horse to look for any reasons.

But the race was long done.

They're off--and it's over.

"That's the beauty, if you want to call it beauty, of the Kentucky Derby," Sahadi said with a wry smile.

Now you understand why Neil Drysdale, who trains Fusaichi Pegasus, watched the race on the big screen.

Sahadi, 37, watched from a box with her husband and two brothers, a few friends and an ABC camera and Lesley Visser at close quarters.

Cecil--a trainer himself and the nephew of English trainer Henry Cecil--had his arm around his wife long before it was over, when she gave a little shrug and they headed for the barn.

"Good job, keep your head up, nothing to be ashamed of," a track worker said as she passed by. Sahadi didn't hide her disappointment.

"It's too much pressure--a lot on me, a lot on the horse," Sahadi said. "I feel bad for everybody."

With her warm wit, unorthodox ways and media savvy honed in her days in publicity at Hollywood Park, Sahadi was the new star of the Churchill Downs backstretch this year as she tried to become the first female trainer to win the Derby.

Nine others have tried before her--she was the fourth in the last five years--with Shelley Riley's Casual Lies finishing second in 1992.

Sahadi is a different sort of trainer, but hardly because she wears her diamond ring in the barn--five carats, if you must ask--or because she chose a blue Escada suit for the Derby. (Nobody was checking the labels on the suits of Wayne Lukas, another noted clothes horse.)

It's not only because she gives her horses peppermints, either, a trick she picked up from Charlie Whittingham.

"He's the closest thing I've ever seen to a human who could talk to the animals, a Dr. Doolittle," Sahadi said of the trainer who won the Derby with Ferdinand in 1986 and Sunday Silence in 1989 before his death last year.

Sahadi didn't have to win the Derby to make her mark as a trainer. She already had made history before she reached the Derby, becoming the first female trainer to win a Breeders' Cup race when she won with Lit De Justice in 1996. She won again the next year with Elmhurst, and last month, she became the only female trainer to win the Santa Anita Derby, setting up The Deputy's trip to Louisville.

"The best thing about her is she's open-minded, very creative," said Barry Irwin, head of Team Valor, the syndicate that co-owns The Deputy. "A lot of people, you give them a horse, and they pigeonhole the horse, thereby taking away possibilities. She's open-minded. She lets the horse tell her what to do."

Truth be told, Sahadi's horse--an Irish-bred colt that sold for $25,000 as a yearling--was a much longer shot than she was to be at Churchill Downs.

"His pedigree, he doesn't come from the royal family," said John Hills, who was The Deputy's trainer in England and watched the race from Berkshire. "But he was always a lovely horse."

Sahadi grew up around racing--her family's Cardiff Stud Farm co-owned Desert Wine, the horse that finished second to Sunny's Halo in the 1983 Derby.

Her brother Stephen owns Cardiff Stud Farm now, and though he made the long walk to the paddock with Desert Wine in '83, this was different.

"Much," he said, as he and another brother, Scott, followed behind their sister. "I actually could start crying."

Barn 41

Forty-eight barns sprawl beyond the backstretch at Churchill Downs.

It is a community unto itself, complete with a track kitchen and a building where stablehands can hold chapel services or take classes when the place isn't overrun by Derby onlookers and radio stations doing live remotes. LOVE 102.3, Star 98.9, 95.7 Classic Rock.

The Deputy's home for almost a month was Barn 41, Stall 12.

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