Mike Smith can feel it.
So can Kenneth Ramsey.
Ditto for Dallas Stewart, and this year he doesn’t have a dog in the hunt.
Or more properly, a horse in the race.
Saturday’s Lecomte Stakes at the Fair Grounds is the local track’s first leg of the road to the Kentucky Derby.
The idea of being in the winners circle at Churchill Downs gets horsemen at all levels stirring, especially at this time of year, even though they know only 20 get to the starting gate and only one can win it.
“Every kid playing basketball in his driveway dreams of being in the NBA some day,” said Smith, the Hall of Fame jockey who will be riding Savoy Stomp on Saturday. “Same way with winning the Derby.
“If you’re lucky enough to achieve it, it feels so great you want it again even more.”
Smith won the Derby in 2005 aboard 50-1 shot Giacomo, an accomplishment he ranks above his record 17 Breeders Cup victories.
Ramsey, who with wife Sarah have won the national Breeder of the Year award four times, have never managed to get better than a sixth-place finish out of the five Derby starters he owned.
That includes 2014 Lecompte and Louisiana Derby winner Vicar’s in Trouble, who finished last in Louisville.
But Ramsey, whose International Star is in the Lecomte, is not deterred.
“Oh, my juices are definitely flowing,” he said. “If you’re from Kentucky, you’re always trying to win the thing.
Stewart, a fixture among local trainers for the past two decades, at least knows what it’s like to be close.
His Golden Soul finished second in 2013 and Commanding Curve was the runner-up last year. Both were long shots at 37-1 and 50-1 respectively.
This year, Stewart doesn’t have a colt that looks like it has the makings of a Derby horse, much to his regret.
“The first time it was like, ‘Hey we got second and that’s pretty good,’” Stewart said. “But last year it was like, ‘Man, what does it take?’”
“Winning the Kentucky Derby is the pinnacle in our sport. Honestly, I dream about it 364 days a year.”
But sometimes those dreams turn into Derby Fever, a condition when owners push trainers to push colts into qualifying races before they’re ready, or even into the Derby when it’s not in the horse’s best interest.
Trainer Larry Jones had such a situation last year when Albano, who was second in the Lecomte and Risen Star and fourth in the Louisiana Derby, easily qualified for the Kentucky Derby.
But Jones and owner Brereton Jones decided Albano was not a Triple Crown horse.
However, after a rest, Albano won the Grade III Pegasus Stakes and was second in the Grade I Haskell Invitational. He’s the favorite in Saturday’s Louisiana Stakes.
“Every trainer wants to say he’s won the Kentucky Derby before his career is over,” Jones said. “And I’m going to stay in this business until I find one.
“But I’ve also got an owner who always wants to do what’s best for the horse. We’d have loved to have won with Albano, but it wasn’t his turn.”
Derby contenders need breeding, of course. But they separate themselves from their peers during training as 2-year olds.
The goal, trainer Neil Howard said, is to find that right mix of learning ability and precociousness.
Howard, whose best Derby finish was a second by Summer Squall in 1990, said he has one this year Lecomte favorite Eagle, although he advises caution.
“You want to be the best, the winning the Kentucky Derby is the most difficult thing to accomplish in racing,” he said. “But you have to try to temper it.
“Eagle’s won his first two races, and if he does well in this prep race, there will be another one. I know everybody thinks about the Derby, but you really don’t want to think about it.
But as difficult as winning the Kentucky Derby may be, it doesn’t deter those who have the desire to keep trying.
Smith was to ride the well-regarded Hoppertunity in last year’s Derby, but an injury caused him to be a late scratch, leaving Smith without a mount.
“I had my choice of four horses last year, and I took the wrong one,” Smith said. “I had Holy Bull (Giacomo’s sire) at 2-1, and he finished 12th.
“You just never know.”