Never suggest to Dallas Stewart that the Kentucky Derby is overrated, either in the overall sports spectrum, where thoroughbred racing no longer enjoys the lofty status it once held, or even within the sport, where some suggest the race is rarely the best measure of the best horse in a given year.
Especially not when the veteran local trainer has his third Derby entry in the past four years — and after the previous two finished second in the first leg of the Triple Crown.
“Nothing, nothing compares to having a horse in the Derby,” said Stewart, who will saddle Tom’s Ready for Tom and Gayle Benson on Saturday at Churchill Downs. “Everybody strives to get their horse in the Derby, and everybody wants to win the Derby. It’s the chance to have the greatest day of your life.”
This Saturday could be the most memorable in Louisiana racing history.
Along with Tom Ready’s, the Bensons also own Mo Tom, who squeezed into the Derby field of 20 when qualifier Cupid dropped out. Tom Amoss, like Stewart a New Orleanian, saddles Mo Tom.
That gives the owners of the Saints and Pelicans two horses in the field in their first year in the thoroughbred business.
To New Orleanian Louis Roussel III, who with Ronnie Lamarque co-owned 1988 Debry runner-up and Preakness and Belmont winner Risen Star, that is remarkable.
“You think about all of the horses born each year (about 20,000 in the U.S.) and then how many are sold as yearlings for $1 million (Mo Tom and Tom’s Ready went for $150,000 and $120,000, respectively) but never get to the Derby, well, this is incredible,” he said. “I don’t know what the odds are.”
About as much as brothers making the Derby as a trainer/jockey combination. It’s only happened twice before, and now Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux and his brother, trainer Keith, from Maurice are making it three.
Kent will be aboard Santa Anita Derby winner Exaggerator. It will be the 20th Derby mount for the three-time winner, but it will be the first Derby appearance for Keith.
“Words can’t describe what it’s like to be involved in the Kentucky Derby with my brother,” Kent said. “Coming from Maurice with the background we were raised, it’s something out of a storybook.”
Kent Desormeaux isn’t the only Cajun jockey in the race. Corey Lanerie and Brian Hernandez Jr. will be aboard Mo Tom and Tom’s Ready, while Robbie Albarado will ride Oscar Nominated. That’s 20 percent of the riders in a race that always draws the world’s best.
“It’s in the blood going back hundreds of years,” said Ed McNamara, author of “Cajun Racing.” “It’s what the best athletes in that part of the country do.”
And don’t forget Louisiana Derby winner Gun Runner. Trained by 13-time Fair Grounds champion and recently named Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen and ridden by 2016 Fair Grounds leader Florent Geroux, Gun Runner is attempting to become only the third Louisiana Derby winner to take the Kentucky Derby as well, and the first since Grindstone in 1995.
Gun Runner, who also won the Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds, was the points leader in the Derby qualifying system with 151. Undefeated Nyquist, the morning line favorite at 7-2, was second at 130.
But that has not proved to be an accurate predictor of Derby success.
Last year, Louisiana Derby winner International Star was No. 1 with 171 points but was scratched on race day. American Pharoah, fourth in points, won the Kentucky Derby and went on to become the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.
In 2014, Louisiana Derby winner Vicar’s in Trouble was No. 2 in points with 120 but finished last in the race which, went to points leader California Chrome. Orb was both the points leader and Derby winner in 2013.
“I think you’ve pretty much got to throw the points out,” said Jason Boulet, Fair Grounds senior director of racing. “Mo Tom’s the last horse to get in, but in my opinion, there’s no doubt that he belongs in this race.”
Mo Tom is Boulet’s pick to win it all — and not just because of his Fair Grounds connections.
“Tom’s horse has had two straight bad trips,” Boulet said. “But when he’s gotten a clear path at the end, we’ve seen what he can do. When you’ve got 20 horses in a race, you’ve got to avoid getting pinched at the start and then have a little luck at the end. You don’t necessarily have to have the best horse to win the Kentucky Derby.”
Boulet also sees the Derby being as wide open as it has been in years, with eight or nine horses being solid betting prospects.
“Nyquist is undefeated, and you have to give him credit for that,” he said. “But the favorite rarely wins the Derby. Exaggerator doesn’t seem to be getting a lot of respect, and neither does Gun Runner, even though all that little horse does is win. Steve (Asmussen) is one of the most respected horsemen out there, but I still like Mo Tom with Gun Runner second to give us a Fair Grounds exacta.”
And then there’s Tom’s Ready, whose only victory in nine starts was in his first race, a maiden special last August at Saratoga. After a disappointing seventh-place finish in the Risen Star, it took finishing second in the Louisiana Derby to qualify.
Daily Racing Form’s Derby Watch lists Tom’s Ready at 50-1, tied with maiden Trojan Nation as the longest shots in the field.
It’s also the first Derby appearance for Hernandez.
But Stewart knows something about long odds.
In 2013, his Golden Soul was 37-1 but finished second to Orb. And in 2104, Commanding Curve went off at 50-1 and wound up second to California Chrome.
Last year, the Stewart-trained Tale of Verve was denied a spot in the Derby but came back to finish second to American Pharoah in the Preakness.
“All of those horses had their best days in big races, which is what we all hope for,” Stewart said. “Right now, I’ve been looking at the other Derby horses, and I honestly think my horse is training as good as any of them. We need to stay healthy and keep his appetite right. This is when you want to peak, and we’re getting there.”