By Maryjean Wall
Herald-Leader Racing Writer
People often ask Wayne Lukas what was his greatest thrill in racing, and now he has the one to top them all.
No one might ever eclipse his historic sixth consecutive triumph in a Triple Crown race, reached yesterday when he won the 122nd Kentucky Derby with Grindstone. The finish was the closest since 1959, as Grindstone, with Jerry Bailey riding, shoved his nose in front of Cavonnier right on the wire. Prince of in fourth place, a nose in front of fifth-placed Unbridled’s Song, the lukewarm 7-2 favorite.
The race was run in 2:01 before a crowd of 142,668, third-biggest in Derby history, with a field of 19 going to post.
A horse trainer’s thoughts at a time like this might naturally drift to his place in history, a plateau that surpasses even Woody Stephens’ five consecutive winning Belmont Stakes from 1982 through 1986.
Lukas said this “probably is the most emotional and excited I’ve been.”
But he said his emotions were all for Grindstone’s owner, Lexington’s W. T. Young, who also had entry-mate Editor’s Note finish sixth in the race.
“That’s a great gentleman,” Lukas said warmly after the race, thinking over their years of friendship and teamwork with Young’s racehorses bred at Overbrook Farm.
In a Derby of many “firsts,” the most important to Lukas was seeing Young, 78, win his first Derby after so many years of investing in breeding and racing with horses raised at his Overbrook. It didn’t hurt that this was the richest Derby, with the $1,169,800 purse surpassing the million-dollar mark for the first time.
Grindstone was the first Louisiana Derby winner since Black Gold in 1924 to win the Kentucky Derby. He also had the fewest starts for a Derby winner coming into the race since Broker’s Tip in 1933, who like Grindstone had raced only five times.
It was the first time since Carry Back in 1961 that the race was won inside the one-sixteenth pole.
This Derby also gave the 1990 Kentucky Derby hero Unbridled a first: Grindstone is from his first crop, was his first foal born and was his first offspring to win a race. There was some irony in Grindstone winning this
Derby, however, for it was Unbridled’s other son in the raceUnbridled’s
Songwho had received the most attention going into the Derby.
Unbridled’s Song even looked like the certain winner from midway around the final turn when he took the lead from Honour and Glory and went on top by two lengths. But Unbridled’s Song drifted wide at the top of the stretch, before starting to flounder rubber-legged in the final eighth. The bar shoes he was wearing to support an injured left front foot became a handicap when Mike Smith asked him to run, and he could not keep up.
“He was really struggling with those bar shoes on,” Smith said, “and as long as I could reach up and get hold of him he was all right. That would gear him down a little bit, then I’d have to pick it up a little bit, and he couldn’t get the traction everybody else did.”
Smith said Unbridled’s Song went wide coming out of the far turn because he couldn’t get a good grip on the track.
“He was fine earlier in the race,” Smith said, “But when it came time to really pick it, he’d really go to bobbing. If I grab him back he travels better, but then everybody runs by you. I was trying to do both, and it just didn’t work.”
Unbridled’s Song had been outfitted in the bar shoes in a last attempt to keep him in the race after he suffered a quarter crack some time ago and a bruise to his foot earlier last week. Many times, horses win races wearing bar shoes. But each case is different, and as Smith said, “I’ve always heard it’s like wearing combat boots and trying to run a foot race.”
So many bettors were wary of Unbridled’s Song’s footwear and his far outside No. 19 post position that he was not even made favorite in the early betting. He opened at 12-1 on Friday while the mutuel field of long shots was 5-1.
For a long time on Derby day, Unbridled’s Song shared a lukewarm favorite’s role with Prince of Thieves, along with the Cavonnier-Semoran entry until Unbridled’s Song finally went postward the favorite at $3.50 to $1, with the entry of Grindstone and Editor’s Note the second choice at $5.90 to $1.
But when Unbridled’s Song lost the race it marked the 17th straight year that the Derby favorite has not won. The Derby-double jinx also remained intact as no winner of the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile has been able to win the Derby.
While Unbridled’s Song’s undoing was his inability to grab hold of the track, the winning ticket for Grindstone was in good part punched by the way he took to the surface. Lukas said the Churchill Downs racing surface was very similar to that at Fair Grounds, where Grindstone was an impressive winner of the Louisiana Derby.
“That had a lot to do with it,” agreed jockey Jerry Bailey, who also won the Derby three years ago with Sea Hero.
The other key to Grindstone’s winning was the perfect trip he had he made his way toward the front following Prince of Thieves from the half-mile pole to the three-sixteenths marker. Yet Grindstone was so far back, beginning his run from 15th place, that it looked as if a wall of horses was blocking him.
“I looked up down the backside, and I knew there were only 14 or 15 in front of me, but it looked like 114,” Bailey said.
“When you’re going to move and who you’re going to follow is very important,” he added. “But I never had to check once. I never lost momentum. The horse was there for me every time I needed him.”
Grindstone ran on the rail, then he split horses, then was back on the rail and split horses again before Bailey swung him to the outside at the three-sixteenth marker. “I picked all the right spots,” Bailey said jubilantly. But the most serious work was yet to begin.
Unbridled’s Song was going wide turning for home while Cavonnier and Halo Sunshine were running side-by-side, coming through the wide space he’d left on the rail. Then Unbridled’s Song faltered, and Cavonnier took the lead in mid-stretch.
“Turning for home I ducked inside when Unbridled’s Song blew the turn,” said Chris McCarron, who rode Cavonnier. Then Cavonnier got inadvertently hit in the face by jockey Craig Perret, swinging his whip on Halo Sunshine. “He threw his head, and that didn’t do him any good,” McCarron said. “But it was purely accidental because we were riding hard side-by-side.”
Suddenly Grindstone was in the picture, flying like a jet on the outside. He passed Halo Sunshine as Unbridled’s Song backed out of the action. Then he wore down Cavonnier with only yards to go, pushing his nose in front just as they reached the finish.
Watching from Young’s box in the stands, Lukas was feeling a great surge of
emotionand vindication, because of criticism he’d received for taking up
more than 25 percent of the field with five horses.
“I think this (the sixth consecutive win) is something that will stand for a little while, and I’m damn proud of it.”