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Stories of Struggle Fill the Field for Derby

Connections of Brother Derek, Point Determined and others are bracing for an emotional day.

May 06, 2006|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The forecast for today's 132nd Kentucky Derby calls for partly cloudy skies, and little chance of dry eyes.

Scattered among the trainers, owners and jockeys of the horses in the full field of 20 entered in today's race is an array of stories of loss, survival and recovery.

Dan Hendricks, the trainer of morning-line favorite Brother Derek, is in a wheelchair after being paralyzed from the waist down in a motocross accident two years ago, an accident with life-altering consequences that have strained his marriage even as he reached the pinnacle of his profession.

Brother Derek's rider, Alex Solis, broke his back in a spill only weeks after Hendricks was hurt but resisted thoughts of retirement in part because he has yet to win the Derby in 14 tries.

The trainer of undefeated Barbaro, Michael Matz, is physically fine. But in 1989 the Olympic equestrian walked away from the crash of United Flight 232 in an Iowa cornfield that killed 184 people, aiding two children, now grown, who plan to be in the Churchill Downs stands today.

In two of the owners' boxes, families still coping with grief after the death of loved ones in recent months will be watching as a 3-year-old colt chases its late owner's dream.

Bob Lewis, who with his wife, Beverly, won two Kentucky Derbies and became beloved as horse racing's most gracious couple, died of heart failure in February at 81.

At the Derby draw Wednesday, the warmest applause was reserved for Beverly Lewis as she claimed a post position for Point Determined, a son of Point Given.

"I told her, if he wins, we'll probably all be crying on national television," said Bob Baffert, the three-time Derby winner who trains the Lewis colt and has two other horses in the race, speed demon Sinister Minister, winner of the Blue Grass Stakes, and Wood Memorial winner Bob And John.

Owned by Houston Texan owner Bob McNair, Bob And John is ridden by Garrett Gomez, who has overcome substance-abuse problems to become a leading jockey.

Elsewhere among the owners' boxes will be the sons and daughters of James T. Hines Jr., who died at 69 in February in what was ruled an accidental drowning in his home.

They'll be cheering for Lawyer Ron, the colt named for Hines' attorney, Ron Bamberger, who in his role as executor of the estate sold an undisclosed percentage of the horse to an investor two days before the Derby in a seven-figure deal that carried the stipulation the horse would continue to wear Hines' blue-and-white silks.

"This was obviously our father's ultimate dream," said Josh Hines, one of his sons.

For all the accompanying tales of tragedy and hardship, the race is still what it always is, a competition among the best 3-year-olds in the country in a crowded field over a trying mile-and-a-quarter course.

It is notable this year for the strength of the field -- "It's the most competitive bunch in the 10 years I've been involved," Baffert said -- but also for its speed component.

Not only is Brother Derek, the morning-line favorite at 3-1, known for his speed along with 4-1 second favorites Barbaro and Lawyer Ron, but the field is dotted with such eager front-runners as the one-dimensional Sinister Minister, who won the Blue Grass Stakes by 12 3/4 lengths.

"If Bode Miller was a horse, he'd be Sinister Minister: He's wild but he's fast," said Baffert, who named his 16-month-old son after the Olympic skier.

Much of the pre-race talk has been about how pace will affect the race -- whether it will set up a horse to chase down a tiring field at the end, the way 50-1 longshot Giacomo did last year, or whether a speed horse will surprise the stalkers by sprinting to a wire-to-wire victory as War Emblem did in 2002.

"The ideal setup would be for the speed horses to go out there, like Sinister Minister, Sharp Humor and Keyed Entry," said Matz, the trainer of Barbaro. "Lawyer Ron has been on the lead and come from behind, and [Brother Derek] is the same way. They should be in the second group, and I should be in the mix there, I believe.

"Hopefully, he'll be in good striking range when they turn the corner down the stretch. And may the best horse win."

Matz's preparation for the Derby has been second-guessed because of the five-week layoff between Edgar Prado's victory aboard Barbaro in the Florida Derby victory and today's race. No horse since Needles in 1956 has won after such a long layoff.

"I think it's just simply been because there haven't been that many preps that were five weeks away from the Derby," said Matz, who was focused on having a fresh horse for the Derby -- and perhaps the Preakness and Belmont ahead.

Similarly, some have fretted over the prospects of Santa Anita Derby winner Brother Derek, seeking to become the first California bred to win the Kentucky Derby since Decidedly in 1962.

"We're just outnumbered," Hendricks said. "We produce maybe 8,000 foals a year and Kentucky produces maybe 25,000. Best Pal, Free House, Snow Chief, just because their number didn't come up. ... There's no shame in coming from California."

Barn 45 on the backside was home the last few days of the best reason not to rule out longshots. Giacomo's trainer, John Shirreffs, is back with A.P. Warrior, a son of A.P. Indy.

In his wallet, Shirreffs keeps a photo of Giacomo.

"We certainly were overlooked. All the West Coast horses were last year," said Shirreffs, based at Hollywood Park.

Michael Trombetta, trainer of the Sweetnorthernsaint, said there's no horse -- from 30-1 closer Steppenwolfer to the six 50-1 shots -- that can't win.

"I was taught never to say never about a racehorse until he's been dead at least six months," Trombetta said.

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