LOUISVILLE — Trainer George Weaver is far enough into his career that he can indulge in real moments of reflection and evaluation.
Thirteen years ago, the Louisville native opened up his own public stable, the culmination of a lifetime love affair he has had with Thoroughbred racing and its backstretch culture.
He opted to forgo a traditional college education in favor of being enrolled in the most successful feeder program in the sport. Stay patient and show the right work ethic, he was told, and he would be as ready as anyone to stand on racing's big stages.
Based primarily now in Florida and New York, Weaver doesn't get home to Louisville often. He has made a special return trip this week, the result of all he has absorbed the last couple decades.
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Saddling one's first Kentucky Derby starter is a defining moment for any Thoroughbred trainer. But when one counts Churchill Downs as their childhood playground, indescribable emotion is attached to the feat.
By virtue of his runner up finish in the Grade I Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 4, Philip Birsh's homebred Tencendur has brought his trainer Weaver back to the homebase of his heart as he is on course to be in the expected 20-horse line up for the 141st Kentucky Derby Saturday.
"Being back home and seeing Churchill Downs again and realizing we're running in the Derby and have a Derby horse, it's just real exciting," Weaver said from his office on the Churchill backside. "I guess when you reflect back at what you decided to do with your life and your career, it's kind of exciting to think of it like that."
It is a fitting reward for someone who has been all-in on what their passion was since the time of their youth.
The first spark for Weaver began simply enough as he would go to the track with his father and routinely sneak onto the backside to get a closer look at his would-be future.
As a teenager, Weaver showed up on Churchill's backstretch looking for a job as a hot walker. He got picked up by John Hennig, father of trainer Mark Hennig, who was then working as an assistant to Hall of Fame conditioner D. Wayne Lukas.
Weaver informed the elder Hennig that he wasn't just there to walk hots, that he was interested in making training his career choice. Hennig in turn brought him to Philadelphia Park for the summer and informed his new hire that if he put in enough dues, he could likely get him into the star-making Lukas program.
"That's what he told me and it happened exactly like that," Weaver said. "I spent some time with John, learned a lot of things about horsemanship and when it came time ... (Lukas) needed someone for a foreman position in New York. So that's how I got in the door with that program. I really owe it all to John Hennig."
The success Lukas proteges have had in Thoroughbred racing make the 79-year-old the human equivalent of living in New York proper: If you can make it in his program, you can make it anywhere.
Seven-time Eclipse Award winner Todd Pletcher and Kiaran McLaughlin — both of whom are set to start horses in this year's Kentucky Derby — are a small sample of the former Lukas assistants now established among the best in racing. Both were still coming up under the living legend when Weaver joined the crew from 1991-1997. Once Pletcher himself went out on his own, Weaver spent another six and a half years working under him before hanging out his own shingle in 2002.
"I went to about two years of college and then decided not to go, but the time I spent in Wayne's barn and Todd's barn following that, that was like going to school," said Weaver, who has 549 career wins through Monday including saddling Lighthouse Bay to victory in the 2013 Grade I Prioress Stakes. "It prepared me for being able to train on my own on all fronts, on horsemanship, how to manage people, how to handle clients and pick out horses. Going to that school, you learn about everything.
Added Lukas, "In this barn the work ethic and discipline and paying attention to detail, that's the thing. When he started I told him there wasn't nothing wrong with him that 8-9 years wouldn't fix."
A Lukas trademark is his intuition with runners that pundits may be tempted to overlook. Weaver's development of Tencendur is a testament to that diligence.
From the start, Weaver felt that the New York-bred son of Warrior's Reward was a cut above your typical state-bred runner. After breaking his maiden his second time out, going one mile and 70 yards on the inner track at Aqueduct in January, Weaver graduated the bay colt into stakes company.
A breakout effort was not to be as Tencendur finished fourth in the Grade III Withers Stakes on February 7 and fifth in the Grade III Gotham one month later. Weaver saw enough, however, to maintain faith that the immature colt was coming together mentally.
He also thought that once Tencendur transitioned from Aqueduct's inner track to its main track, the big striding colt would be better suited for a big run. Weaver was on the nose in that assessment as Tencendur advanced off the final turn to take a one length lead in the stretch of the Wood Memorial before grudgingly yielding to race winner Frosted in the final furlong.
"I had a feeling with his size and scope, he was a horse that was running okay over the inner track but we get him on the main track and he might be able to jump up and run an even bigger race," Weaver said. "I can't tell you I knew he was going to run as big a race as he did. But we always thought there was untapped talent.
"At that point I'm like 'That's good enough to go to the Derby.' No matter what the outcome of the race is ... it's a worthwhile experience. You can't put a pricetag on it, it means so much. And I'm from Louisville so it's probably stamped in my head more than people from other places."