Only in horse racing

They may call horse racing the Sport of Kings, but Tom McCarthy is no king. He's the littlest of little guys, a 75-year-old retired schoolteacher with one horse — a horse that might just win the Kentucky Derby. This could only happen in horse racing.

Having retired from the Louisville school system in 1990, McCarthy, the owner and trainer of General Quarters, decided to devote more time to his main passion, training racehorses. But there's no such thing as a rich schoolteacher, and McCarthy only had enough money to afford the odd cheap horse here and there. With little to work with, he never won many races. When General Quarters won the Blue Grass, it was just McCarthy's 14th winner since 1991. Never winning many races, he never attracted any owners.

He appeared to be stuck in a never-ending cycle until General Quarters came along. McCarthy first noticed the colt at 2007 Keeneland September yearling sales. He had always admired his sire, Sky Mesa, as a racehorse and thought any horse by that stallion deserved a second look at the sales.

"I had seen his sire, Sky Mesa, win the Futurity at Keeneland and he so impressed me," McCarthy said. "He was a perfectly balanced horse who seemed to have everything going for him. I thought that when he became a sire I'd love to train one of his babies."

But with a modest budget, he was outbid for General Quarters, even though the horse sold for just $20,000.

McCarthy regretted his decision not to spend a little more for General Quarters, but he was given a chance to make up for past mistakes. Owned by Kenneth Ramsey and trained by Wesley Ward, General Quarters showed up in a $20,000 maiden claiming race last year at Churchill Downs. McCarthy didn't let him get away a second time.

"I said I should have taken that grey horse because he was in my range and I could have had him," McCarthy said. "He happened to come back that spring at Churchill in a $20,000 claiming race and I just reached in and grabbed him."

Though General Quarters won the day McCarthy claimed him, it took the colt a while to develop. He lost his next seven races, but was getting a bit better each time. He finally lived up to the potential McCarthy had always believed he had when breaking the losing streak in the Feb. 14 Sam Davis at Tampa Bay Downs. After having a troubled trip in the Tampa Bay Derby, where he finished fifth, General Quarters came back with a rousing win in the Blue Grass. McCarthy's $20,000 investment has earned $641,735.

Since the Blue Grass, General Quarters has done everything right, McCarthy said.

"He's come back sensationally," the trainer said. "And he seemed to have matured and grown a lot in the last couple of months. He's beginning to become the racehorse I thought he could become. In the beginning, he was green and there was a little bit of a learning that he had to do, but now I think he realizes what it's all about."

Now, he's as close as one can come to fulfilling the single greatest accomplishment in the sport. The competition in the Derby will include Sheik Mohammed, who has almost infinite wealth, and John Magnier and Michael Tabor, who didn't blink when asked to pay $3.7 million for Dunkirk at the sales. Hold Me Back and Mr. Hot Stuff are co-owned by Kenny Troutt. In 2007, Forbes Magazine listed his net worth at $1.3 billion. Ahmed Zayat, the owner of Pioneerof the Nile, spends millions every year at the sales.

Were this football or baseball, McCarthy couldn't compete. Retired schoolteachers don't own sports franchises. They don't win Super Bowls or the World Series. But this is a game where someone with $20,000, a dream and a little luck can climb the highest mountains. There's no reason why Tom McCarthy and General Quarters can't win the Kentucky Derby. The horse is far from a hopeless long shot and his trainer has done everything right so far.

"Sure, I wish I still had him, but I hope he goes on and wins the Kentucky Derby," the former owner Ken Ramsey said. "This is a Cinderella story. You have this older gentleman with just one horse. How can you not root for him?"

These haven't been the best of times for horse racing, but every once in a while a story like this one comes along that puts the smile back on your face. Is this a great game or what?

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at wnfinley@aol.com.