For a trainer, preparing a colt for the 3-year-old classics is the ultimate test of fire.
From the early season conditioning through the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont, a horseman will be subjected to constant stress and scrutiny. The long grind is a measure of judgment, patience, foresight and character.
Maryland racing fans have had the opportunity to watch the way trainers respond to the challenge as occasional good young horses have blossomed in the state. In 1982, Linkage should have been a classic winner, but trainer Henry Clark seemed perhaps too weary to cope with all the pressure.
A few years earlier, Cormorant was one of the best colts of his generation, but trainer James Simpson seemed out of his element with such a horse. But when Spectacular Bid began to emerge as a star, Bud Delp rose to the occasion with a masterful training performance that silenced all the critics who thought he could only manage cheap horses.
Now fate has tapped another Maryland trainer. But as Dean Gaudet begins to prepare Mighty Appealing for his 3-year-old campaign, she doesn't seem to know that she is supposed to be nervous.
"I'm not a real excitable person," she said. "I'm pretty laid back. I think I can handle the pressure -- as long as the horse can."
At this point, of course, Gaudet hasn't been asked a thousand times how she feels about having a chance to become the first woman trainer ever to win the Kentucky Derby. She hasn't been asked 10 thousand times why she is using little-known jockey Greg Smith on a prime Derby contender.
In this still-tranquil part of the racing season, she can still fully enjoy the thrill of training the best horse she has ever had.
Gaudet has been training horses in Maryland for more than 20 years, and she has a reputation as a solid, capable professional. She gets to train good young stock for Israel Cohen, chairman of the board of Giant Foods, and his sister, Lilian Cohen Solomon.
Still, Gaudet has never been close to the Kentucky Derby; the top achievement of her best previous horse, Appeal Approved, was a third-place finish in the John B. Campbell Handicap at Bowie.
But as soon as Mighty Appealing launched his career at Laurel last fall, Gaudet found herself playing in a whole new league. The colt won his debut by 16 lengths, won his next start by nine and then captured the rich Laurel Futurity. He finished second in a pair of major New York stakes to verify that he was among the best of his generation.
At the end of last season, Gaudet had to map out an intelligent schedule for Mighty Appealing's 3-year-old campaign. (This was, significantly, something that Clark never did for Linkage; something that Delp did meticulously for Spectacular Bid). Wisely, she decided to leave Maryland, and she came to Florida with her whole 24-horse stable. "It seemed to make sense to come here so the weather wouldn't interrupt our training schedule," Gaudet said.
She planned a campaign that would start with the seven- furlong Hutcheson Stakes Feb. 6, followed by the Fountain of Youth Stakes, the Florida Derby and the Flamingo Stakes.
Already, Gaudet and Mighty Appealing have had one setback. When the colt finished a recent workout, he took a few bad steps, and Gaudet found a pus pocket in his foot.
That problem set back Mighty Appealing's training slightly, but Gaudet said, "It's something you have to take in stride. We're just lucky it happened now and not right before one of the classics."
This won't be the last time in the 1985 racing season that Gaudet will have to summon patience and calmness in the face of adversity.