LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- For "an instant," trainer Steve Asmussen thought he was going to win last year's Kentucky Derby with Nehro. For Saturday's 138th Derby, Asmussen will saddle two horses who appear to be thriving and who just might provide well, in the temporal hierarchy, starting with the Planck constant, what's more enduring than an instant? A lifetime, perhaps; and, beyond that, Derby history.
Moving well and advancing steadily, Nehro was about to pass the early Derby leader, Shackleford, at the top of the Churchill Downs stretch when Asmussen, watching with his family from the grandstand, experienced his victorious revelation. The countless hours of working and the many years of wanting and dreaming all must have flashed forward to fill that dense moment.
I know what it's like to win the Derby. For an instant. And it felt great.
”-- Trainer Steve Asmussen
Asmussen said he felt it profoundly, that rush that overcomes disbelief and skepticism, for who could ever believe he would actually win a Kentucky Derby. But, of course, it was also there, at the top of the Churchill Downs stretch, that Animal Kingdom suddenly lowered himself into an overpowering gear that would put him clear at the wire. Nehro finished second.
"I know what it's like to win the Derby," Asmussen joked. "For an instant. And it felt great."
Except for that instant, Asmussen never has allowed himself to think of a Derby victory --- dream, perhaps, but never expect. The Kentucky Derby defies expectations and invites vicissitudes. It's too volatile and turbulent, too difficult to win, its circumstances too unpredictable, to allow anybody not leading over Secretariat or Citation to anticipate victory. Asmussen respects that.
"You have to be prepared, you have to be good enough, and you have to be fortunate," Asmussen said, explaining what's necessary to win a Kentucky Derby for more than "an instant."
Asmussen's Derby horses, Daddy Nose Best and Sabercat, are both prepared. Daddy Nose Best is the only horse in the field with two victories at 1 1/8 miles, and they're among the most experienced Derby horses, with 18 starts between them. Daddy Nose Best has implied he's good enough, and Sabercat has suggested he wants to be. But Saturday, like the other 18 horses who'll line up in the starting gate, they'll need a hearty dollop of good fortune.
"I love the position we're in with both horses as far as their health and the way they're getting over the racetrack," Asmussen said. "I think they both have a lot of positives going for them. Now we'll be very nervous about the post position draw [on Wednesday] and what kind of trip they can work out from it. What you're hoping for and what you get aren't always the same thing."
Although not in company, both horses worked a half-mile Monday at Churchill. And both impressed. Sabercat, who finished third in the Arkansas Derby, breezed in 48.40 seconds, and Daddy Nose Best, who won the Sunland Derby, in 49:40. Sabercat needs more speed, Asmussen said, and so began more quickly by design; but Daddy Nose Best finished more strongly, running his final quarter-mile in about 23.70, with exercise rider Carlos Rosas sitting as chilly as an oyster on the half-shell.
"I like the confidence level of Daddy Nose Best," Asmussen said, "and the spacing of his races. He obviously thinks he has a chance; he doesn't know who has been in the paddock with him his last couple of races. And I like the experience Sabercat has gotten with the travel and all the dirt he's taken."
Daddy Nose Best has always craved more distance, his owner, Bob Zollars of Dallas, explained Monday. After two dirt sprints, Daddy Nose Best went to the grass as a 2-year-old largely because turf races typically give juveniles an opportunity to stretch out earlier. And with the success the colt had a victory at Saratoga -- he remained on the grass, finishing sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf event.
"But we always intended to get him back to the dirt," Zollars said. And after a win in the Camino Real Derby on Golden Gate's synthetic surface, Daddy Nose Best indeed returned to a dirt surface in the Sunland Derby, where he gave one of the better performances of any 3-year-old this year, rallying from 2 ½ lengths back in mid-stretch to win by nearly a length. And that, combined with his training and his overall demeanor here at Churchill Downs, suggests he could be a very dangerous long shot Saturday.
Last year, Nehro was well prepared and fortunate, but, in the end, he wasn't quite good enough. In 2007, Curlin, who would become Horse of the Year, was certainly talented enough, but instead of good fortune he had a rough trip. Preparation, talent and fortune -- that's the tripod on which a Derby victory sits.
"Daddy Nose Best has been in a very good rhythm," Asmussen said, as if accounting for two legs of the tripod. "He's put in some very good works over this racetrack, and I just want to keep that rhythm and keep him happy."
Asmussen said this Derby is especially meaningful for him because he's here with two horses that come from his "parents' place," the Primero training center in Laredo, Texas. His parents, Keith and Marilyn, are both trainers, and over the years from their El Primero training center have come such horses as Tight Spot, Sea Cadet, Olympio, Summerly and Suave Dancer.
Growing up in Laredo, Asmussen and his older brother, Cash, shared a room and a dream. They often would lie awake at night quietly discussing the dreams they had for their futures. Some youngsters probably dream of winning the Super Bowl or the World Series, but the Asmussen boys dreamed of winning races.
Few dreams have been more fully realized. Those Asmussen boys who grew up in Laredo working on their parents' ranch and making regular excursions to racetracks throughout the Southwest, those same kids who lay awake dreaming of winning races, have won three Eclipse Awards: Cash as the nation's outstanding apprentice jockey in 1979 and Steve as the nation's outstanding trainer in both 2008 and 2009.
Winning major stakes from Hong Kong to Paris, including the Arc de Triomphe on Suave Dancer, Cash rode about 3,000 winners in his career. He now trains horses. Steve, who had a brief riding career, has saddled more than 6,000 winners and has won the world's richest races.
Still, it would be "beyond belief," Steve Asmussen said, to win the Kentucky Derby. He believed it for "an instant" last year, and then it was gone. He won't believe it again until a horse he saddles wears that famed roseate blanket.