LOUISVILLE — There are people around his barn, always around Barn 37, as they were Tuesday morning watching the one-man work force that is 75-year-old Tom McCarthy giving the star of his one-horse barn, General Quarters, a proper bath.
"We're behind you Tom," yelled a gawker.
There are the 100-or-so letters on his desk back home at the farm, the ones from former students and colleagues and people he doesn't know, all wishing the former high school principal well.
"I'm going to sit down and try and (answer) them one day," said McCarthy.
There are the other participants in this 135th Kentucky Derby, who can't help but smile when you bring up the name of the $20,000 claimer who won the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland three weeks back and, who knows, might just win on Saturday.
"You've got to just be in love with that story, even if you're not even a sports fan," said David Lanzman, co-owner of Derby favorite I Want Revenge. "If I didn't have a horse in the race, I'd be cheering for his horse to win."
"My mother was a principal," said Bob Baffert, the three-time Derby winning trainer who has Pioneerof the Nile in this year's race. "Watching him win those races, you know he's just loving it. It's fantastic."
Indeed, along the Churchill Downs backside this week, McCarthy and his horse have become the sentimental's principal rooting interest.
"They say they are (rooting for me)," said McCarthy.
It's just that he's not sure why.
"I really can't understand the furor over this," he said in the tack room of Barn 37. "The horse is the main thing. He's the one that brought me."
McCarthy said what he has enjoyed most about this Derby experience has been spending time with his horse. McCarthy claims people don't realize just how nice a horse is General Quarters, son of Sky Mesa out of an Unbridled's Song mare.
"You can't even get Unbridled's Song mares anymore; they've gone right up the chimney, they are so expensive," McCarthy said.
McCarthy saw his first Kentucky Derby in 1955, when Swaps beat Nashua. He took the Greyhound bus up from Union College in Barbourville to see the race. He bet Nashua because he had met the horse's famous trainer, Sunny Fitzsimmons, when McCarthy was 10 years old.
He trained his first horse in 1962. But needing a regular job, he started teaching, then progressed to the station of principal of three Louisville public high schools.
He retired in 1990 and got back in the racing game, owning and training a horse or two at a time. He had lost his only runner, a claimer, when he bid on but did not buy General Quarters in the Keeneland September Sale in 2007. He happened to notice the same horse in a Churchill claimer last summer. He put in the claim. General Quarters won.
In February, General Quarters won the Sam Davis Stakes in Florida. After a fifth-place finish in the Tampa Bay Derby, he bounced back to take the Blue Grass. And here we are.
"If he runs a good race, and kind of hits the board, we might just go to the Preakness," McCarthy said. "I'd really like to go up to Saratoga. (The Travers) might be a dream, too, but I've been thinking about it."
Dreams do come true, you know. Over all those years, McCarthy dreamed of being in with the big boys, running a horse in the Derby.
"I thought it had passed me by," he said.
So would winning the Derby change his life?
"No," said McCarthy. "I'd go home and just do the same thing. I generally get home around 11 or 11:30, have a sandwich, then go out and work for two, two-and-a-half hours."
He wouldn't trade the memory, though.
"He had a chance to sell that horse for a lot of money, and he didn't do it," Baffert said. "That's what the Derby is all about. It's not about who has the most money. It's about who has the best horse."
There are lot of people hoping that come Saturday, Tom McCarthy has the best horse.