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Kentucky Confidential

Trainers Are Honored, Dinner Is Served

Horsemen gathered together Tuesday night in the Hyatt Regency Ball Room for the Kentucky Derby Trainers Dinner.

There are social functions, the perfunctory ones, the empty ones, but this was different. Something about this night expressed a deeper undercurrent with the $150 price of admission. There were several trainers who have returned and many who are new.

“There’s a little unity,” said trainer Kelly Breen, who will saddle Pants on Fire on Saturday for the Kentucky Derby, and had Atomic Rain and West Side Bernie in the big race two years ago. “We’re all here getting something done. We all get up — most of us — super early and try to do something. We’re all competitors and at the same time we’re friends.”

Trainer Todd Pletcher, who will send out 2010 Champion Juvenile Uncle Mo and the lesser-known Stay Thirsty, both for owner Mike Repole, knows the pressure that comes with Derby Week. Pletcher was 0-for-24 before striking into Derby lore in 2010 with Super Saver.

“This is a great event, very big,” he said, cupping a screwdriver, “It’s light, takes the tension off. It’s not a roast, but we have a good time. It’s good for us to be with and respect our peers.”

The pressure, the pressed thumb, the heat from the magnifying glass; it’s a commonality.

“It’s a big week and everybody is on edge,” Pletcher said.

“Guys like Todd Pletcher, who get the elite of the elite,” Breen said, “they give him the top-bred horses, even he says how hard it is. A horse like Toby’s Corner (who was withdrawn this week after suffering an injury) hurts. I feel blessed to get this far. This is our Super Bowl and World Series wrapped up in the best two minutes in sports … and you can bet on it.”

For Pletcher too, this renewal of this dinner — one he’s been a part of for 10 years — is his first as defending Derby champion and recipient of the Kentucky Derby Trainer’s Trophy.

“Without that monkey on my back, it’s enjoyable,” he said.

Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who has brought runners like Closing Argument and Jazil to the Derby and will saddle Soldat on Saturday, couldn’t put his finger on this dinner, even if he had been before.

“I’m not sure to be honest with you,” he said. “Maybe five years ago. I’m not sure if I’ve been.”

No matter, but the special meaning comes from being able to spend it with his daughter, Erin, who is now out of school, and his wife and son who fly in on Friday.

“I look forward to it,” he said. “This week is pretty special. My daughter is here. She’s out of college. The kids are not usually here.”

A recorded bugle call to the post crackled over the speakers and the doors popped open to the dining room, the starting gate if you will.

Hosts Todd Schrupp and Paul Rogers told stories and introduced various dignitaries, such as Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, who kept his speech tight and mentioned one of his favorite job perks.

“I get to hand out the trophy for the Kentucky Derby,” he said.

The decibel level was as high as a lawn mower; loud voices mixed with the scrape of knife on plate. Salad started with herbed zucchini, yellow and red tomatoes, mixed greens and ribbons of prosciutto. Entrees commenced with a piece of medium rare sirloin steak you didn’t need teeth to chew, grilled Mahi Mahi with mango salsa, mushroom risotto, green beans and carrots washed down with a glass or two of Canvas Cabernet Sauvignon, 2009.

They called up the trainers to speak on behalf of their connections, about their horses, about their chances. Most were in attendance, such as Brilliant Speed trainer Tom Albertrani. He thought he was one-two in the Blue Grass Stakes.

“In some ways it allows us to promote our business,” said Albertrani, who saddled Deputy Glitters in the Derby in 2006. “You’ve got to be there to win. It’s great in general for my staff as well — hot walkers and grooms — it’s great for the whole barn.

“If any trainer doesn’t want to be here, he’s lying.”The race replays and stretch drives shown energized the connections, who often broke out in spirited applause. Oaklawn Park track announcer’s call of the Arkansas Derby stretch drive — “It’s Arch! Arch! Arch! — made them laugh when it was played twice, once for Archarcharch, once for runner-up Nehro.

Kathy Ritvo, one of two female trainers in the Derby field, will saddle her first Derby starter, Mucho Macho Man, a horse she says is 17 hands tall. On November 13, 2008, Ritvo had a heart transplant. Now she takes time to soak in the night.

“It’s amazing to be here in the company of such great trainers,” Ritvo said. “I’m honored. It’s the best two minutes in sport. I’m enjoying every day. It’s nice to see other trainers and watch the other horses.”

And when Governor Beshear expressed how much he liked handing over the trophy?

“I want to be next to him and the first lady when the race is over!” Ritvo said.

Trainer Jeff Bonde, in with Twice the Appeal and outside looking in with another, Sway Away, approached the mike and expressed his desire for one more defection so he could run both in the race. This drew an audience of murmurs and glances because he would be wishing ill will on everyone in the room.

Afterwards, there was no venom from Bonde, making his first Derby start. He just wants as many shots as he can muster.

“As I said on the podium,” Bonde said, “if any trainer doesn’t want to be here, he’s lying. Wherever you start, finish, or in the middle, it’s the one place you want to be. I have one in the race, and I’m praying for two.”

Perhaps Bonde summed the dinner up best when reflecting.

“Most events like this are for charities, or owners, or other groups,” he said. “This is the first I’ve ever been to that they had for trainers. It’s refreshing for me after I’ve been in the trade for 35 years. I’m an employee and they expect a lot of us, and we give them those expectations. It was a nice thing. Very nice.”

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Author PhotoBrendan O'Meara is a contributor to Horse Race Insider where he blogs at The Carryover 2.0. He is the author of the forthcoming book "Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year" (SUNY Press 2011). His work has appeared in the Paulick Report, The Blood-Horse, Brevity, SN Review, and The Good Men Project. Visit his website or follow him on Twitter. More by  ›