LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Churchill Downs likes to call itself "America's most legendary racetrack," a distinction that depends almost entirely on its legendary race. The Kentucky Derby is to racing what "Hamlet" is to theater, continually inspiring and eliciting greatness. Even more, Saturday's Derby will return the greatest name in the sport to the limelight: Calumet.
Yes, legends live here, eternally. This is where Regret, in her first start of the season, led from start to finish in a display of feminine superiority, where the "Clubfooted Comet," aka Assault, won by eight lengths on his way to a sweep of the Triple Crown, where Eddie Arcaro and Citation waltzed to the wire and, of course, where Secretariat, in 1973, ran each quarter-mile faster than the previous one. The Derby also has been an occasion for great moments and even greater irony, such as "The Fighting Finish," where jockeys Don Meade and Herb Fisher, as a famous photo revealed, brawled on horseback as they came down the long Churchill stretch, with Brokers Tip winning by a nose in what turned out to be the only victory of his career, and Native Dancer's calamitous journey that left him a head behind Dark Star at the wire in the only loss of his, yes, legendary career.
Even with the expansion and renovation that seem relentless here, Churchill Downs remains redolent with history, its grandstand forever adorned inscriptively with the names of the Kentucky Derby winners, all 138 of them, and its hallways still echoing with the wisdom of Charlie Whittingham, "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons, and Ben Jones. There's no place like this and no moment like the Derby. It's turbulent, turgid, and transcendent. That's why, on Saturday afternoon, when the University of Louisville band plays "My Old Kentucky Home," about 300,000 eyeballs, including many that repeatedly have borne witness to the greatness of the legendary race, will become moist with emotion.
That's also why it's so richly appropriate that Calumet Farm returns to the limelight in this race and within this limned moment, escorted by two Hall of Famers, trainer D. Wayne Lukas and jockey Gary Stevens. What a trio of experience and accomplishment -- yes, a legendary trio, represented in Saturday's 139th Kentucky Derby by Oxbow, who's a 30-1 long shot in the morning line.
Calumet has bred and has owned more than twice as many Kentucky Derby winners as any other breeder or owner. Two Calumet horses swept the famed Triple Crown: Whirlaway in 1941 and Citation in 1948.
Of course, the Calumet that dominated the sport for more three decades was quite different from today's. William Monroe Wright established the farm in Illinois, originally as a Standardbred operation, in the 1920s. His son, Warren Wright, brought Calumet to Kentucky and ushered its transition to Thoroughbreds. And through the farm's various incarnations, under its various owners, from Warren Wright to his widow and heirs and ultimately to the ignominious J. T. Lundy, whose perfidy and fraud landed him in jail, Calumet bred nine Derby winners, from 21 starters, and owned all but one of them, Strike the Gold in 1991. No other owner or breeder has more than four victories.
Calumet, however, hasn't owned a Derby starter since Power Lunch in 1990. But that changes Saturday, with Oxbow. And this could be just the start of the famed farm's resurgence.
"Hopefully, we'll be back," said Eddie Kane, the farm manager. "That's the goal, to compete in the biggest races at the premier racetracks."
And so Oxbow will become Calumet's first Kentucky Derby starter in 23 years, and like his owner, his jockey is also making a comeback.
Brad Kelley, a reclusive billionaire and native of Bowling Green, Ky., is the patriarch of the new Calumet. And not only is the famed Lexington farm a showplace again, it's also poised to become a leader in the sport for several years. Calumet owns 34 2-year-olds, 54 yearlings and 100 foals, according to Kane. Six stallions stand at the farm, including Point Given, the 2001 Horse of the Year, and Americain, the 2010 Melbourne Cup winner.
"He's great for racing," Lukas said about Kelley. "He loves the sport and its traditions, and he wants to do everything the right way."
And so Oxbow will become Calumet's first Kentucky Derby starter in 23 years, and like his owner, his jockey is also making a comeback. Stevens hasn't ridden in a Kentucky Derby since he finished 14th on Noble Causeway in 2005, shortly before he retired.
Keeping his weight down had become a struggle, if not a downright impossibility, he said. But at age 50, with the help of a trainer and a nutritionist, Stevens has returned to the game feeling healthier, he said, than he has since he was in his 20s. He looks lean and hard, hungry even, and perhaps he is.
"When I won my first Kentucky Derby, it was sweet; when I won my second, it was sweeter; and when I won my third, it was the best," Stevens said, referring to Winning Colors, Thunder Gulch and Silver Charm. "It's the greatest feeling in the world, and I'd love to feel it again."
In his last outing, the Arkansas Derby, Oxbow finished fifth. But that race, Stevens said, is a "throw-out," something to be disregarded in evaluating the colt, because it represents a failed experiment. As planned, Stevens grabbed a firm hold of Oxbow out of the gate and took him back, well off the pace. The colt had been close to the early lead in all his races, but with an eye on Kentucky and with an outside position, Lukas and Stevens took a different approach.
"I knew as soon as I hit the wire that it was a mistake," said Stevens, who's not going to make that mistake Saturday.
Calumet, Stevens and Lukas have won 16 Kentucky Derbies. Stevens and Lukas teamed up for two of those victories. And Oxbow, as he prepares to take the legendary trio into the legendary race, has been a taut bundle of energy this week, almost as if he's eager to share in the legend himself.