This is the time of year for bluegrass and roses. But at 8:30 in the morning, five days before the Kentucky Derby, Henry Clark is at his old Maryland home, standing in the straw outside Barn A at Pimlico. Clark has blue eyes the color of the heavens, a horse that might have won the Derby, and his convictions. He is 77 years old and has been a trainer for almost 50 of them.
Last week, he decided not to run his colt, Linkage, in the Derby on Saturday. He says it was the hardest decision he has made as a trainer. And he made it knowing he probably would never get another chance at the roses.
This is a man who quit high school, he thinks after his third year, because he couldn't get to the race track quick enough. "One day," he says, "they were shipping somewhere and I said, 'I gotta go.' "
Clark, who is thinking about retiring, goes home every afternoon and feeds sugar to a retired mare, a 26-year-old champion, who came back to his farm to die. Still, when Clark decided Linkage would not run because "the horse comes first," few in racing circles believed him.
Some racing types thought Clark and Linkage's owner, Jane duPont Lunger, were being contemptuous of the Derby, and in turn were contemptuous of the decision. Others wondered whether, at age 77, the pressures had gotten to Clark; whether he had something against Churchill Downs. They refused to believe the horse came first.
"As I've said and said so many times, I'm trying to do what's best for the horse," Clark said. "If I was 20, I'd do the same thing."
Linkage had run three races in 26 days: the Louisiana Derby, a prep race and the Blue Grass Stakes. "We hadn't really given up on the Derby," Clark said.
Linkage ran the 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass in 1:48, faster than Spectacular Bid had, faster than Riva Ridge had. Though he won easily, by 5 1/2 lengths, he ran hard. The next day he was tired.
"If that horse had come out of the stable frisky and playing, I guess I'd have said, 'We'll go,' " Clark said. "You can tell if he comes out prancing, with vim and vigor, he's fine. If he comes out dragging a bit, he's a tired horse."
So that morning, Clark decided that asking Linkage to run three major races, plus a prep race, in that short a time was simply asking too much.
Then why hadn't he skipped the prep race, skeptics asked. Clark had brought in Bill Shoemaker to replace his young jockey, Greg Smith, after losing the Louisiana Derby. "I wanted him (Shoemaker) to ride him once before the Blue Grass," Clark said.
There had been times in his career that he made the expedient choice. He always regretted it. "If you overran him (Linkage), it might knock him out for the whole year," he said. "There's lots of races later on."
When he told Lunger of his decision, Clark said, she replied, " 'Do what you think is best.' There are not too many who will pass up an opportunity to run in the Derby."
The clamor over his decision rose as injuries forced other favorites out of the race. "The press down there seemed like they were kind of on me about it," he said. "I guess they feel, the Derby, that is it."
Clearly, they felt his behavior was aberrant. But Smith says it is consistent with the way Clark treats horses. In the three years he has worked for Clark, Smith says, there hasn't been one time that a horse who has stumbled or pulled a muscle hasn't gotten the time needed to come back.
This year, Clark retired a 6-year-old mare because she was "getting smart and sulky," Smith said. "There was nothing wrong with her. But she raced most of her life and he thought she deserved to be retired."
When he was a boy, Clark said, his mother told him stories about his grandfather and uncle, both trainers. His uncle had a horse that finished sixth in the 1919 Derby. Clark galloped him some. "But I wasn't really very good," he said.
(Clark rode a pony every day until he fell off one about 12 years ago at Belmont and cracked his back.)
His grandfather, William Jennings, won the Preakness in 1887 with a horse named Dunboyne. Because of that, his wife says, "The Preakness is more important to him than any other single race."
Clark has a portrait of Dunboyne hanging on the wall of his house in Glyndon. He could find a place for the portrait of another Preakness winner, if he had to.
In his family, horses came first.