Phil Hauswald grew up 15 minutes from Churchill Downs and, for as long as he can remember, he dreamed of being a horse trainer.
After serving his apprenticeship for several years, the 27-year-old finally will get a chance to saddle a horse at the Downs. But even in his wildest fantasies, Hauswald couldn't have anticipated the circumstances. He will start Bachelor Beau in the May 3 Kentucky Derby after winning the $171,290 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland Thursday.
Bachelor Beau led all the way to score a three-quarter-length victory over Bolshoi Boy. Bold Arrangement, the invader from England, finished fast to be third, less than a length behind the winner, and looked like the most promising Derby contender in the Blue Grass field.
But this day belonged to Bachelor Beau and to Hauswald, both of whom were blessed by wondrous strokes of fortune.
Hauswald had spent the last five years as assistant trainer to Shug McGaughey, the dominant horseman in this part of the country, and had no immediate prospects of getting his own career started.
Then fate intervened: McGaughey was hired last December to train a major stable in New York, and he recommended to his local clients that they keep their horses with Hauswald. Thus did Hauswald get to train for Louisville car dealer Jack Tafel, and thus did he take over the management of the humbly bred Bachelor Beau.
The gelding had given some creditable performances this year without winning. Last month, he finished third in the rich Jim Beam Stakes at Latonia, just two lengths behind the good Maryland colt Broad Brush. He didn't appear to be quite in the class of his main Blue Grass rivals (as his 19-to-1 odds would suggest), but he had one distinct edge. In this 11-horse field, there were 10 runners who tend to come from off the pace and one front-runner: Bachelor Beau.
"I knew there wasn't much other speed, and I thought if he were on the lead he might be taken a little lightly," Hauswald said. "I told Larry [jockey Larry Melancon] not to surrender the rail at all. He runs good down inside of horses and I thought that would work to our advantage."
It did. Melancon and Bachelor Beau sprinted clear and immediately slowed the pace, running the first quarter mile in 24 1/5 seconds and the half in 48 3/5. The three betting favorites -- Icy Groom, Bolshoi Boy and Pillaster -- all were stalking the leader, and none of their jockeys was in a hurry to move. Pat Eddery, who had come from England to ride Bold Arrangement, was in even less of a hurry, and was sitting next to last on the backstretch.
As the field reached the turn, Bolshoi Boy drew abreast of Bachelor Beau and looked for a moment as if he were going to go by him. But the gelding fought back and held off Bolshoi Boy's challenge through the entire stretch run, covering the 1 1/8 miles in 1:51 1/5 over a deep racing strip for a payoff of $41.80, $14 and $8.
If the race had been longer, however, he wouldn't have held off Bold Arrangement. The invader was parked five wide all the way around the turn and lost much of his momentum. But he was finishing strong -- like a horse who wants to go the Derby distance.
Hauswald probably knows that, too. He knows that Bachelor Beau never again may get an uncontested lead in a major stake as he did today.
"I always thought it would be wrong to let sentiment get in the way of a rational decision," he said. But under the circumstances, nobody in the world could blame him for indulging in a little sentimentality at Churchill Downs next week.