Kentucky Derby

Why first-time trainers keep winning the Derby

LOUISVILLE — They will tell you how experience counts, how the Kentucky Derby is hallowed ground, not a training ground.

Those aren't the horses talking.

Remember, the horses can't talk.

Those are the trainers talking, trainers like D. Wayne Lukas who said this week, "There is no how-to book. So experience is tremendous here. Tremendous."

And Todd Pletcher, who said, "You learn every year."

And Bob Baffert, who said, "I know a lot more now than when I first came here."

"Those guys who are coming in here for their first time," Lukas said, "they'll go home a lot smarter after this one."

OK, geniuses, then how come six of the last seven Derby winners have been trained by people who had never before run a horse in the world's most famous race?

That would be Barclay Tagg with Funny Cide in 2003, John Servis with Smarty Jones in 2004, John Shirreffs with Giacomo in 2005, Mike Matz with Barbaro in 2006, Rick Dutrow with Big Brown in 2008, and, of course, Chip Woolley last year with Mine That Bird.

How do you explain that?

"Well, the horse is the most important ingredient," replied Lukas. "Always remember that."

The Derby is the constant reminder. This is the race where anything can happen, and often does. This is the race that despite all the sales money, all the training, all the prep races, and all the planning, can still reward the unlikely.

There are three first-time trainers this year: Mike Maker, the former Lukas assistant who has Stately Victor and Dean's Kitten; Jeremy Noseda, the Englishman who had to wait out the volcanic ash to arrive from Europe and train Awesome Act; and Alexis Barba, the 57-year-old former assistant to Eddie Gregson who trains Make Music for Me.

On paper, Barba appears the most unlikely of the trio to throw the roses over her horse Saturday, if only for the fact that it was not until Wednesday morning, the morning of official entry, that Barba knew her 50-1 shot was actually in the race.

The happenstance was one of those juicy bits of Derby irony. With Endorsement, Shannon Ritter appeared to be the only female trainer in this year's race. But after working 4 furlongs in 47.23 seconds on Wednesday morning, the WinStar-owned colt came up with a condylar fracture of the right front ankle. He, and she, as in Ritter, were out.

That let Make Music for Me, with another she, Barba, in the race.

"It's very unfortunate for her," said Barba on Friday, outside her horse's barn on the backstretch. "Anybody who's done this job knows it can happen at any hour, or any moment. We're sort of prepared for it, in a way."

Another ironic tidbit: Ritter was a longtime assistant to Elliott Walden, until Walden left training to become WinStar's racing manager. Then Ritter went out on her own. Barba was an assistant for 20 years to Gregson, until the Derby-winning trainer (Gato Del Sol, 1982) committed suicide in 2000. Then Barba went out on her own.

"He was so patient," said Barba of Gregson. "I learned to be patient about the choices I make coming into it, and letting it happen instead of trying to make it happen."

The patience has paid off with Music, who last year was second twice and third once to Lookin At Lucky, this year's Derby morning-line favorite. Barba's colt ran fourth in the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland last October, but Barba was prepared to write that off as a bad day when she shipped the colt back to Lexington for the Blue Grass Stakes. The horse ran sixth out of nine.

"Now I just dismiss it," Barba said. "He hates that racetrack."

Who knows, maybe he'll love Churchill Downs, even though Music has never run on the dirt, and he's handled by a first-time trainer.

"The horse is definitely more important than the trainer," Barba said. "It's not the trainer running the race."