The glamor horses, Snow Chief and Badger Land, flew in. The glamor trainers, like D. Wayne Lukas and Leroy Jolley, I'm sure flew in, too, probably first class. I can't imagine the glamor jockeys, like Bill Shoemaker, Chris McCarron and Laffit Pincay Jr., coming in any other way; those guys go clear across the country for an 8-to-5 shot in the feature and they're back home in time for a late supper. This is the Jet Age, the Frequent Flying '80s. How else would you get around?
Twelve hours in the dead of night from Pimlico to Churchill Downs. No radio. "Doesn't work," the driver said. "I've had a bunch of vans, and after 1,000 miles the radios never work."
Doing the driving was Richard Small, the trainer and a former Green Beret in Vietnam. Riding shotgun was Vince Bracciale Jr., the jockey. And standing in the back, good horsey, was Broad Brush, the surprise winner of the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and perhaps the winner of the Kentucky Derby. A short convoy, just two cars: the van in front and the Toyota behind manned by Marvin Stump, the groom, and Charlie Turner, a self-described "utility man" for Small. From Maryland, through Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, and into Kentucky. The Road Warriors on a no-frills land cruise. "We're all here on a mission," Turner said solemnly.
By the end of the trek, Small had been up for 30 straight hours. Why did you drive? he was asked.
"I know the way."
Broad Brush always rides and Small always drives. Small likes to drive and Broad Brush likes being driven. Oh, does he like being driven. Broad Brush was born to ride; in a previous life he surely was an ambassador. You may have seen him cruising around the Baltimore Beltway or through the streets of Mount Washington near Pimlico. It's said that Small even takes him to the bank. Of course if Broad Brush wins the Derby, he'd be returning the favor, wouldn't he? And who's to say that won't happen? He's won seven of nine races, all four with Bracciale riding. Snow Chief will be favored with Badger Land the second choice, but the last time the favorite won here was 1979, Spectacular Bid -- owned in part, curiously enough, by Harry Meyerhoff, brother of Robert Meyerhoff, who owns Broad Brush.
This is the first Kentucky Derby for Team Mission: for the hard-working, dedicated Small, for Meyerhoff, for Bracciale and Bracciale's agent, Steve Vaonakis, for Turner and Stump. The newness of it may account for why the usually cordial Small -- actually a big, beefy man; in battered chocolate-brown Borsalino and well-worn khaki work clothes, he looks like a fashion consultant to a survivalist group -- was rather snappish with some unfamiliar faces Friday morning at his barn. Described by his friends as "reclusive" anyway, Small was apparently uncomfortable with the gnat-like swarm of reporters. Once, in response to being asked if he was excited to be at his first Derby, Small said, "Of course I am. What the hell kind of question is that?" and turned sharply on his heels. Antsy, regularly bending his knees just to be moving, if nervous energy was a musical instrument, Small would have been a full orchestra. "He's high-strung," Turner explained. "A trainer has to be conditioned for this kind of exposure the way a horse has to be conditioned to run. This is a lot of pressure on him."
Understandably so. The stakes are tall. There's no telling what a Derby win can do for someone. Not just for a trainer like Small, 40, whose good name would immediately expand from regional to national, but also for a jockey like Bracciale, 33, whose fortune would likely be the same. As the song goes: It's the chance of a lifetime in a lifetime of chance.
Bracciale almost got here in 1981, aboard Derby-winner Pleasant Colony. As Vaonakis, Bracciale's agent, tells it (using "I" instead of "he" the way fight managers do): "I had the horse, but I got hurt a week before the Wood. I was out 10 months. Velasquez got the ride." Bracciale joked how the reason he never rode the Derby before was "bad agent." Perhaps he could have climbed up on a 50-1 shot, but he said that economics dictated otherwise. "Just to ride one race doesn't make sense," he said. "Unless you have a horse with a really good shot, you can go other places that day and win." This time, Bracciale was confident, he was sitting on a horse with a really good shot.
The question mark with Broad Brush is: What will he do on the lead? Assuming he's good enough to get there this afternoon, will he wait on other horses as he's often done in the past? In the Wood, he practically stopped to let others catch up. Is it temperament? Or is there some physical reason for this habit? The optimistic view holds that Broad Brush hasn't really been tested yet, that he believes, as Juan Marichal did, that one run is all you need win by. "Some of the races he was pretty much the best horse," Bracciale said. "He had no competition, so he relaxed." This best-case scenario was echoed by Vaonakis: "He wants to compete. When he gets clear he has a tendency of loafing and waiting for a rival to catch up, so he can compete." He shouldn't lack for competition this afternoon, nor, win or lose, a ride home tonight.