Kentucky Derby! Twin Spires! It’s almost too much for trainers whose dreams come true

| April 20, 2011

As the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands approaches, a glance at the roster of major contenders finds some familiar names near the top.

Nick Zito, a two-time Derby winner, trains the current favorite, Dialed In. Three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert could have as many as three starters depending on what he decides to do with The Factor, who looked like the possible favorite until a poor effort in last week’s $1 million Arkansas Derby. But even without that speedy colt, he still has Santa Anita Derby winner Midnight Interlude and Jaycito.

Todd has Uncle Mo

Todd Pletcher, coming off his first Kentucky Derby win with Super Saver, has Uncle Mo, who would have been a heavy favorite if not for his stunning loss in the Wood Memorial, and Stay Thirsty, who is coming off a disappointing run in the Florida Derby.

While marquee names like Zito, Baffet and Pletcher are a welcomed annual presence at the Run for the Roses, new faces provide plenty of spark to the great race. And they’ve enjoyed incredible success through the years.

A recent run of rookie trainers who found their way to the winner’s circle included Barclay Tagg (Funny Cide, 2003), John Servis (Smarty Jones, 2004), John Shirreffs (Giacomo, 2005), Michael Matz (Barbaro, 2006) and Rick Dutrow (Big Brown, 2008).

Rookies can win

It is clear that you do not have to be the racing equivalent of John Wooden, Denny Crum or Bob Knight to win the Kentucky Derby. Experience on the championship scene is certainly no detriment. But there are lot of people who look like Butler’s Brad Stevens or Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart that get the job done in the biggest race of them all.

We’ve already shared the story of one of those up-and-comers with you, but we’ll update the story of Kathy Ritvo. She’s the trainer of major Derby contender Mucho Macho Man and is bidding to be the first woman to saddle a Kentucky Derby winner.

Ritvo, a 41-year-old mother of two, is looking to make the most of her Derby Day opportunity. But she approaches every day like that.

The Twin Spires!

She has gained that perspective through life experience. Ritvo stepped onto the grounds of Churchill Downs for the first time on Sunday and the image of the illuminated Twin Spires in the pre-dawn darkness on Monday provided her with the same tingle that goes through the rest of use who are more accustomed to the sight.

Ritvo was able to enjoy that moment, and all those that are to come in her first Kentucky Derby experience, because a donor heart became available five years ago just before her heart was about to give out.

She is, to anyone’s knowledge, the first heart transplant recipient to train a Kentucky Derby contender, and that donor heart is doing some extra and excited beating as Ritvo moves through each new day of sensations and smiles.

“For me, it’s hard to believe that I’m here (at work) every day,” Ritvo said Monday morning while talking with a visitors outside of Barn 41. “I’m healthy and it was a long road. I think it’s amazing. I’m living a dream.”

The journey has not been quite that dramatic for Juan Arias, but it has been an interesting journey to Churchill Downs for his first Kentucky Derby.

Arias trains Decisive Moment, who finished second in the Vinery Racing Spiral at Turfway Park and his graded stakes earnings have guaranteed him a spot in the Kentucky Derby field.

Born in Panama and a product of the legendary school for jockeys in that country that has produced Laffitt Pincay, Jr. and a long list of riding stars.

He’s too big

Arias came to the United States with dreams of riding in a Kentucky Derby. But, given his body type, he knew that weight would soon be an issue and his riding career might be a brief one.

That career in the saddle at U.S. tracks ended in 1990, and he quickly changed his focus to training, working under a series of experienced veterans that included Richard Root, Wesley Ward and Happy Alter.

He went on his own in 2003, and now finds himself getting a close view of the historic Twin Spires and the venerable one-mile dirt surface at Churchill Downs most every day as he takes Decisive Moment through his morning gallops. He turns the saddle over to jockey Jesus Castanon when it’s time to work his horse.

Arias has been on the grounds a couple of weeks longer than Ritvo, but he offers the same smile when talking about his experience thus far as one Ritvo offered on her first day beneath the Twin Spires.

“Before it was a just a dream,” Arias said. “I can’t believe that we’re just three weeks away from one of the things that we wanted.”

Another Arias

Arias’ name will ring familiar with long-time Derby fans because he shares that name with the man who trained Canonero II, the Venezuelan-based Kentucky-bred that stunned the racing and sporting world with a win in the 1971 Kentucky Derby that ranks among the biggest upsets in its 136 renewals.

There are no blood or business connections that link the two other than both have brought a horse to the Kentucky Derby. Canonero’s Juan Arias, by the way, won the race in his first try. The Juan Arias who trains Decisive Moment would love to share that connection.

Starry eyed

Ritvo and Arias have an imposing task before them as they attempt to make all the right moves as they guide their horses through the final weeks of preparation for Kentucky Derby 137. But don’t dismiss then because they are starry-eyed first-timers.

As recent Derby history clearly shows, it’s not a requirement that you have participated in a Derby to find yourself in the winner’s circle on your first trip to the biggest race of them all.

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