How this story ends up will depend on the performance of a colt named Indian Express in the 129th running of the Derby at Churchill Downs on Saturday. But with the race still to be run, the story already has a moral: do not try too hard when it comes to getting a horse to run for that blanket of roses.
"I've had owners that for years I have been trying to get a Derby horse and keep coming up short," said the trainer Bob Baffert, who has won three of the last six Derbies and now has Indian Express headed to the starting gate. "This thing came about because of a conversation with a neighbor and a lucky phone call. You just got to relax and let things happen. The Derby is all about luck."
But Laffit Pincay Jr. is not exactly an ordinary neighbor.
He is a Hall of Fame jockey who, at 56, has won a record 9,530 races. Last December, Pincay had a line on a horse in his native Panama that, its owners thought, might be worth some money. The horse, Indian Express, had won two sprint races as a 2-year-old, each by a devastating margin of more than 10 lengths.
Still, it was a tough sell because the times were slow for Indian Express's two Panama victories and the colt was, oddly enough, bred in Utah, far from the center of breeding in Kentucky. Of the 34,568 foals registered in 2000 in the United States, Indian Express was one of 106 that hit the ground in Utah, according to the Jockey Club, a fact that contributed to the paltry $4,500 he commanded in the sales ring as a yearling.
When Pincay mentioned Indian Express to Baffert, Baffert was immediately interested because the colt was a son of Indian Charlie, who won the Santa Anita Derby in 1998 for Baffert and then finished third in the Kentucky Derby. Baffert got on the Internet and began surfing for pictures and videotape of the colt.
"Indian Charlie was one of the smartest horses I've ever had and this one looked just like him," Baffert said. "He looked awesome on tape, but I knew he was running against a bunch of goats. Still, I decided I wanted to take a chance."
Within days, Baffert received a call from Phil Chess who, in the 1950's with his brother Leonard, transformed some rhythm and blues nightclubs in Chicago into the powerhouse Chess Records by recording artists like Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters and Berry. In 1972, Chess retired in Tucson, where he got to know Baffert, who was then wearing a cowboy hat and working his way up the quarter-horse circuit. They had some laughs together then, but Chess did not ask Baffert to start training horses for him until three years ago. They made some money, but Baffert was doing too good of a job: Chess kept losing his horses to other trainers who felt they were worth grabbing in claiming races.
Chess saw something of himself in Baffert, as did Chess's wife, Sheva, who urged him to spend more money for a better horse.
"Finding a good horse is like making a good record - you're looking for quality, something different and projecting ahead," Chess said today by telephone from his home. "He told me he had a good one from Panama and I said: 'Bob, you're the doctor. I'll take him.' "
A deal was struck for Indian Express for $150,000 and the colt was shipped to Baffert's barn in California. Baffert intended to have Pincay ride Indian Express in the San Pedro Stakes at Santa Anita on March 22, and to take on the best 3-year-old colts on the West Coast two weeks later in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby. But Pincay had a terrible spill in a race on March 1, fracturing the same bone in his neck in two places, an injury that may force him to retire.
Enter Tyler Baze, who as an 18-year-old won the Eclipse Award as the nation's top apprentice and is now rapidly building a reputation on the tough Southern California circuit.
"First, I needed a jockey who didn't think I was delusional for trying this colt in the Santa Anita Derby," Baffert said. "Second, I needed one who not only would listen to my directions, but would actually follow them."
In the six-and-a-half-furlong San Pedro, Indian Express closed strongly for fourth, barely three lengths behind the winner. "I told Bob when we came back that the colt needed to go longer," Baze said.
In the paddock before the Santa Anita Derby, Baffert told Baze that he had the best horse in the field. The betting public, however, did not think so: after all, the horse was from Utah via Panama. They sent Indian Express off at odds of 35-1. And after setting rapid fractions, the colt dueled gamely in the stretch before losing by a head to Buddy Gil.
The next stop was Louisville, with a date for the Derby. And even though Baffert won the Derby last year with another improbable colt - the 20-1 shot War Emblem - the odds will probably not be kind to Indian Express on Saturday.
Not only has a Utah-bred never won the Kentucky Derby, but Churchill Downs officials can also find no evidence that one has even started in the race. As for Panamanian invaders, the last one to try, Ulises, finished dead last in 1994. And then there is a fact to consider: the last horse to capture the Derby after only four starts was Exterminator, in 1918. So perhaps this horse tale is destined to end badly.
Or, says Chess, a man who knows, Indian Express might end up like Diddley and Berry, ahead of his times and ultimately "making a pretty good record."
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