Kentucky Derby

Trainer's return to prominence launched by voice mail

Derby 138 hopeful Take Charge Indy's trainer Pat Byrne talks with reporters before morning workouts,Wednesday, May 02, 2012 at Churchill Downs in Louisville. Photo by Jonathan Palmer
Derby 138 hopeful Take Charge Indy's trainer Pat Byrne talks with reporters before morning workouts,Wednesday, May 02, 2012 at Churchill Downs in Louisville. Photo by Jonathan Palmer Herald-Leader

LOUISVILLE — As Pat Byrne was helping his daughter Devon move from her dormitory at the University of Vermont into an apartment a few years ago, he noticed a message from an unfamiliar number on his phone.

Considering Byrne had a U-Haul full of furniture to unload and an important transition to help oversee, promptly getting back to the unknown caller was somewhere low on the trainer's list of priorities.

"I took two days to call him back," Byrne recalled outside of his Churchill Downs barn Wednesday. "It would have been a dire mistake if I didn't call him back."

The him in question was Chuck Sandford, an Illinois-based businessman who — upon suggestion from his wife, Maribeth, that he find himself a hobby — was inquiring to see if Byrne would be interested in training for them.

Eventually, Byrne and the Sandfords were able to make a connection. When the horses for the 138th Kentucky Derby hit the Churchill Downs track Saturday, the racing world will see why both parties have a special place in their hearts for the power of voice mail.

Among the conditions Chuck Sandford gave Byrne when the trainer took him and his wife on as clients was that he wanted to have fun in his new venture. With their Grade I winner Take Charge Indy set to start in the Kentucky Derby on May 5, Byrne has never had so easy a time fulfilling an owner's demand.

What the regally bred Take Charge Indy has accomplished in his six-race career goes beyond his upset of heavily favored Union Rags in the Grade I Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on March 31. Not only has the son of A.P. Indy taken his owners to the proverbial promised land just three years after they bought their first horse, he has reminded the industry what Byrne is capable of when the right horse lands in his care.

After a two-year run in 1997 and 1998 during which he conditioned three champions, including 1997 Horse of the Year Favorite Trick, Byrne dropped off racing's radar, winning just 35 races total from 2006 to 2011 with no stakes victories in that time.

Even though Byrne seemed a long way from the day he swept the 1997 Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies with Favorite Trick and Countess Diana, Sandford couldn't think of another horseman he wanted in his corner when he decided to indulge his passion for owning Thoroughbreds.

"About five years ago, I noticed that (Byrne's) not training very many horses and I always admired his work," said Sandford, who serves as president of Bag Maker's Inc., a company his wife founded in 1980. "I asked my wife, 'When do I get to retire?' She said, 'You can't retire, you don't have any hobbies.' So with that in mind, I decided this is what I was going to do.

"It took me a couple of weeks to figure out how to get hold of Patrick but I finally got his phone number, called him and he didn't call me back for two days. I was about ready to say, 'Well, maybe he doesn't want to train for me, I better call someone else,' but he called me back. Now he's one of my best friends and we're having a blast."

Byrne has never been afraid to both take risks and stick with his convictions. In 1998, he gave up conditioning both Countess Diana and Favorite Trick to become the private trainer for Frank Stronach.

While that pairing had an ugly ending that saw Byrne file and eventually settle a lawsuit charging Stronach with fraud and breach of contract, he made the most of his time there by guiding Stronach's Awesome Again through a 6-for-6 campaign in 1998 that culminated with a Breeders' Cup Classic win.

Even at his peak, the hands-on Byrne never had more than about 35 horses in his care. When the Sandfords initially purchased a half-interest in Take Charge Indy from Carl Bowling and Tami Bobo last January and sent him to Byrne, a career revival seemed on the horizon.

"When he was a 2-year-old on the track in Ocala (Fla.), he always showed signs of a lot of promise and we always felt like this was a colt that would be a serious 3-year-old," said Byrne, who will be saddling his first Derby starter Saturday. "The thing is, this a game of numbers, and I chose not to train millions of horses. It can be a very aggravating, tormenting business but I enjoy what I do. And the people I work for let me enjoy what I do."

Out of the multiple Grade I-winning mare Take Charge Lady, Take Charge Indy broke his maiden by 61/2 lengths going 6 furlongs his first time out last July and was immediately tossed into stakes company. The dark bay colt — who is now solely owned by the Sandfords — lost his next four starts, including a fifth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but that didn't prevent Byrne from making a gamble he now wears with pride.

Byrne opted to scratch Take Charge Indy out of the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby on March 10 despite him being among the favorites. He pointed instead for the deeper waters of the Grade I Florida Derby. All the criticism Byrne took over that decision became moot when Take Charge Indy stole the 11⁄8-mile race in gate-to-wire fashion to win by a length with Union Rags third.

"We felt like he deserved a shot. It was really quite simple and, other than the media second-guessing, it worked out well," Byrne said. "I knew this colt was such a talented horse and was training so well. I watched Union Rags train and he's a good horse, he's not (fellow Michael Matz trainee and 2006 Kentucky Derby winner) Barbaro. Everyone's got him made out to be the next Barbaro, he's not.

"He's a nice colt and maybe he'll win the Derby this Saturday. But we've already beaten him once. And I don't think we've seen (Take Charge Indy's) best race yet."

What Byrne and the Sandfords have seen is how a series of twists of fate have altered their lives for the better.

"It's rather amazing. The first two years, we couldn't win a maiden race," Chuck Sandford said. "I don't buy cheap horses, but that doesn't mean you're going to get a nice horse. But it just takes that one horse."

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