At Churchill Downs, talk helps Kentucky Derby trainers pass the time

The sun glistened off infield tents and the wind jostled jockeys’ silks at Our Old Kentucky Home on Thursday. It was the day before the day before the day that pumps blood into horse racing’s veins.

Twenty horses are set to break from the starting gate late Saturday afternoon in the 136th Kentucky Derby. That’s about six too many to allow for room for all to compete to the best of their ability. But that cow is long out of the barn and the general fan, who pays attention once a year to this sport, gets more of a cavalry charge than a horse race.

The plus is that more horses bring more variables, and more variables bring more interest. The 20-1 starters, normally nonfactors, can be rationalized into a $2 bet because of payoff value and the real possibility that something funky will happen.

Exhibit A: Mine That Bird last year.

In the early hours of Thursday morning, the scene at the barns was vintage pre-Derby, with the talk about post positions, rain and tradition.

Nearly 75 people stood around as race favorite Lookin At Lucky got a bath. Nearby, his trainer, Bob Baffert, still smarting from his No. 1 post draw, said, “Quality of horse is more important than the draw.”

John Shirreffs, who won with longshot Giacamo in the 2005 cavalry charge, explained the negative of drawing the rail: “They [the other horses] come right down on you. You have to hope the No. 2 horse goes out and gives you room.”

Shirreffs is not here with a Derby horse, but with mare Zardana, who is to race in the $400,000 La Troienne Stakes on Friday against last year’s horse of the year, Rachel Alexandra. Shirreffs also has a nice mare named Zenyatta, who is at home at Hollywood Park, waiting for her next chance to extend her unbeaten streak. Shirreffs said the Vanity Stakes on June 13 at Hollywood Park is her likely next appearance, “depending on the weight” she is asked to carry.

There were no clues from Shirreffs about a much-anticipated Rachel-Zenyatta race. They were set to meet at Oaklawn Park on April 9, but Rachel lost her tuneup race to Zardana.

A few barns away, Rachel’s trainer, Steve Asmussen , took the blame, saying his horse hadn’t been fit for her 4-year-old debut and that he “owed her one” for his mistake in racing her then. Asmussen cut off a question about what’s ahead, a question hoping to elicit some indication of a possible Rachel-Zenyatta run against each other, and the boys, in this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic here at Churchill Downs in the fall.

“The only ahead is tomorrow’s race,” he said.

D. Wayne Lukas has a Derby entry, the middle-odds Dublin, and has rebuilt his business here, nine years after he left Santa Anita. He is 74 and still attracts a female crowd. Standing nearby, watching the scrum for pictures with Lukas, was his friend Paul Hornung, the former football star.

“Look at that,” Hornung said. “He’s a rock star.”

Lukas, a master storyteller, gathered Hornung and a few friends and told of a horse he had entered in the first race Thursday, Luv Gov. He is owned by Marylou Whitney, who disliked Eliot Spitzer, the former New York governor who left office in a scandal involving call girls. In testimony against him, Spitzer was identified as “Client 9"; thus, Whitney’s name for another horse.

“Two summers ago at Saratoga,” Lukas said, “Ninth Client finished in a dead heat with Skipadate. You can’t make that stuff up.”

The forecast is for as much as 1½ inches of rain Friday night. That had trainers scratching their heads.

“Sometimes, a wet track can carry the speed, sometimes not,” said Todd Pletcher, who had the overwhelming favorite in Eskendereya before scratching him earlier in the week because of an injury. Pletcher still has four Derby entries.

If there is some, rain will be a factor. Of the 20 entries, 11 have never run in any kind of slop and only one, longshot Back Talk, has won any race over two turns in wet conditions.

As morning moved toward noon, the lore of this place with the fabled Twin Spires and the Derby that defines it found new perspective.

Trainer Nick Zito, who has won the Derby twice, said when he makes the walk from the barns on Derby Day, “I feel like a gladiator.” Baffert said winning here makes you “like a famous basketball coach.”

But the best summary came from 87-year-old Penny Chenery, Secretariat’s breeder and owner, here to promote a Disney movie about her 1973 Triple-Crown-winning legend.

“When you win the Derby,” she said, “you have this wild moment of elation and confusion. Then it hits you: That’s your horse.”