The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same

A Wayne Lukas pony shares a moment with a friend on the backside Tuesday morning | Christina Bossinakis


LOUISVILLE, KY–Having not attended the Kentucky Derby since American Pharoah won in 2015, I was reminded of why it's really worth the trip. Yes, one has to deal with the logistics. Limited parking, long walks to get to your destination, excessively priced hotels and car rentals, in addition to the singular hope that a Kentucky Derby Day ticket might miraculously have fallen into your hands. It's probably hard for some to understand just how many people converge in Louisville at the same time, creating something of a controlled chaos. The bustle, which gradually increases before reaching a fever pitch Saturday, is something that has always gone hand-in-hand with the Derby. That's nothing new. But when you decide to come to the Derby, be prepared to play (and pay!).

While the overnight rain may have kept some of the crowd at bay Tuesday morning, enough turned up to offer some early morning action on the backstretch at Churchill Downs. It appeared that most of that activity, however, was reserved for the Todd Pletcher barn, where morning line favorite Fierceness (City of Light) drew the largest crowd of the morning following his easy maintenance exertions during the Derby/Oaks training session at 7:30 a.m. Surrounded by the eager media and general public hoping to get a close-up look at the early favorite, Fierceness was soon joined by his owner, Mike Repole, who looked far more interested in the photo opportunity than his horse was.

The D. Wayne Lukas barn also enjoyed a fair bit of activity, too. Lukas saddles his 50th lifetime Derby starter with Just Steel (Justify). Interestingly, and somewhat unusual for the backstretch of a racetrack, several babies ended up outside the Hall of Famer's barn offering a poetic counterpoint to the legend's manicured shedrow. Full disclosure, one of said babies was actually a Lukas grandbaby, little Johnny, accompanied by mom Kelly (Jeff Lukas's daughter) and his dad, David Roy. Secured from the converging crowds, Lukas had his pony strategically placed, thus barring the way into his office. Having determined that was a surmountable obstacle, I was undeterred, scooting through to grab a few comments before heading on my way.

Johnny Roy, great-grandson of Wayne Lukas, and his parents, David and Kelly Roy | Christina Bossinakis

While much of the activity appeared to be revolving around the Pletcher barn and his former boss, a barn that appeared to be oddly sedate considering one of the Derby favorites is stabled there was that of Chad Brown. Both on the track and back at the barn, GI Blue Grass S. winner Sierra Leone (Gun Runner) looked every bit the $2.3-million Fasig-Tipton Saratoga purchase that he is–a bonafide Adonis. Looking at the two Derby favorites back-to-back, it's like comparing Muhammad Ali and Prince (yes, the singer). Not in the least comparable, physically at least, but definitely both oozing class. Given the lack of frenzy at the Brown barn, I decided to take a moment and stop for a chat, and the conversation invariably turned to Brown's former boss and mentor, Bobby Frankel. Still clearly emotionally affected by the departed Hall of Famer, Brown recounted stories about Frankel and Empire Maker, a horse that Brown was blessed to have observed up close through the 2003 Triple Crown. While a Derby win would elude the Juddmonte homebred (Brown recalls that Frankel thought the colt was more than capable of winning that year's Triple Crown), he would go on to win the GI Belmont S. after finishing second to Funny Cide in Kentucky. It's clear that a Derby win for Brown would fulfill a long-cherished dream as a horseman, however, winning it in honor of a remarkable trainer would seemingly be life-altering for the Mechanicville, New York native.

Bath time for Sierra Leone | Christina Bossinakis

News of the defection of GIII Lexington S. winner Encino (Nyquist) also broke Tuesday, offering a fortuitous berth in the starting gate for Epic Ride (Blame). The winner in Turfway's Leonatus S. in February and most recently third in the GI Blue Grass S., the John Ennis-trained colt looked the picture of health, showing up many of his contemporaries during Tuesday's Derby training session. Definitely a longshot come race day, but maybe a nice exotics addition.

With most of the final major works already in the bag, the Japanese were out in force Tuesday to watch Forever Young (Jpn) (Reel Steel {Jpn}) and T O Password (Jpn) (Copano Rickey {Jpn}) put in their final pieces of work ahead of a Derby tilt. The pair hit the track, which had been sealed earlier in the morning, following the first harrow break.

Working on his own under training assistant Yusaku Oka, Forever Young worked five furlongs in 1:03, carving out internal splits of :14, :27, :39.60, galloping out six furlongs in 1:16.80.

T O Password, working in tandem with GII Alysheba S. entrant T O Saint Denis (Jpn) (Kitasan Black {Jpn}), worked a half-mile in :46.80 under jockey Kazushi Kimura with internal fractions of :23.80 followed by a five-furlong gallop out in :59.60.

“[Forever Young] handled it well and moved well over the track,” Oka said through a translator. “I think we did a good for job for the final breeze.”

Both colts seemed to take everything in stride, and those making up their entourage had some pretty happy faces afterward to suggest that they thought the colts did exactly what they had to do heading into Saturday's big dance.

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