LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The question is inevitable here.
So when thoroughbred trainer Tom Amoss and his wife, Colleen, first made this city their part-time home, relocating from New Orleans in the early 1990s, they got used to hearing it whenever they explained that horses were the family business.
“The first question you get asked when they find out you’re a horse trainer is, ‘Have you run in the Kentucky Derby?’ And for a lot of years, I had to say no,” Amoss said Wednesday at Churchill Downs. “Now I get to say, ‘Yeah, I’ve run in it.’ And the next question is, ‘Have you ever won it?’ I’m still saying no.”
Amoss said he believes he has brought the horse who, after Saturday’s Derby, can change his answer.
If you’re skeptical, he understands.
Mo Tom — owned by GMB Racing, the stables of Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson — ran as the favorite in the Louisiana Derby and finished fourth in what was, for Amoss, a crushing defeat for the thoroughbred he calls “the best 3-year-old I’ve ever trained.”
They showed the race Tuesday night at the Kentucky Derby Trainers’ Dinner. It was the first time Amoss had seen it, and “it hurt to watch,” he said.
He doesn’t intend to do it again.
“Look, I’m from New Orleans,” Amoss said. “I grew up there. I’ve been going to the races there since I was a kid. I’ve got five brothers, my mom and dad — the whole city was at the racetrack, and it was a pro-Tom Benson crowd. They wanted to see one of the Benson horses win.”
Still, Amoss remains a believer in Mo Tom and in the horse’s shot at redemption in this, his home away from home.
The Kentucky Derby in this town is “like Mardi Gras, like Jazz Fest for New Orleans people,” Colleen Amoss said. It is the event of the year, and Louisville is, to many, the center of the horse racing universe.
It’s also a corner of the Amosses’ world, a second home for a New Orleans family that has some Kentucky in its blood.
Tom and Colleen Amoss still split their year between the cities. Daughters Ashley and Hayley were raised mostly in Louisville and did virtually all of their schooling there. Hurricane Katrina — and 8 feet of water in the family’s Lakeview home — derailed a 2005 move back to New Orleans, and both girls finished high school in Louisville before they went on to graduate from LSU, Ashley in 2013 and Hayley two years later.
“I was driving through the streets (in Louisville this week) and it was like, ‘Those are the streets I learned to drive on. These were the sidewalks I learned how to ride a bike on,’ ” said Ashley Amoss, now a videographer with the Saints and Pelicans. “There’s definitely that nostalgia.”
Tom Amoss first came to the Kentucky Derby in 1979, when, as a senior at Newman he watched Spectacular Bid win the Run for the Roses. Even then, Amoss knew he’d be a trainer someday.
He made the part-time move to Louisville in the early 1990s, leaving Shreveport behind for the challenge of stiffer competition. Colleen and the girls remained in Louisiana for the first year.
“I didn’t know that I could make it on this circuit,” Amoss said. “This is really the major leagues. Without demeaning where I was training before, that was more like Triple-A ball. Getting up here and being successful and competitive with the other trainers up here, it was at that point we moved up here.”
Collen brought Ashley and Hayley, and Louisville became their full-time residence, though Tom spent part of his year traveling.
New Orleans remained home in many ways — the family spent Thanksgiving and Christmas there, and they visited during Mardi Gras — but the girls were raised in Louisville.
“This is very much their home, too,” said Colleen Amoss, who spends the year traveling with her husband now that their daughters are out of school.
So Saturday’s race — a goal for any trainer — is particularly significant for the Amoss family, given its ties here, and the chance for Mo Tom to show the horse racing world what Tom Amoss has seen from him in private workouts.
Ashley Amoss said her father is “never very open” about liking a horse, but he’s been unabashed in his praise for Mo Tom, who will run out of the No. 4 post position and whose morning line odds were set at 20-1. Tom Amoss called Wednesday morning’s workout the horse’s “finest hour.”
But on a Louisville radio show this week, Amoss equated seeing Mo Tom’s brilliant workout runs to witnessing a UFO, then trying to convince people you aren’t crazy.
“He displays things to me in the morning and in practice where I put him through different tests that are just different than I’ve ever seen in one of my horses,” Amoss said. “I really thought (on) Louisiana Derby day the world was going to see what I saw. It didn’t happen. We had trouble in the race, (but) I still say the same thing: He’s a brilliant talent.
“When they turn for home, just get out of his way and I think he’s going to show everybody what I’ve been seeing.”