While reporters encircled trainer Charlie Whittingham and a steady stream of well-wishers stopped by Barn 41 Sunday morning to congratulate him on his Kentucky Derby victory, Gary Thomas stood a few yards away, his head bowed, looking as if he were mourning a death in the family -- or something even worse.
He could barely bring himself to talk about what had happened on Saturday afternoon. "I was sick all last night," Thomas said. "And now I'm going to go through the rest of my life knowing I had the best horse in the Kentucky Derby."
If the gods who oversee horse racing were less cruel, they would have let Thomas' colt, Rampage, get through on the rail and win the 112th Derby. Even though the victory of Ferdinand delighted all the sentimentalists, Whittingham already had won more stakes races than any trainer in history and 54-year-old jockey Bill Shoemaker already had won three Kentucky Derbies. But, realistically, this was Gary Thomas' one and only chance for glory, and fate snatched it away from him.
Rampage's jockey, Pat Day, stopped by Thomas' barn Sunday morning to offer the trainer his condolence and apologies. Then he recounted what happened in the critical moments that decided the outcome of America's most famous horse race.
He and Shoemaker were racing abreast of each other on the turn, with Rampage on the inside and Ferdinand on the outside. There was heavy traffic all around them -- the congestion looked like rush hour on the Beltway -- but Day glanced toward the rail and saw an opening. Zabaleta, one of the early pacesetters, was on the rail and dropping back quickly. Snow Chief and Wheatly Hall were in front of Zabaleta and a little outside of him. Day thought he could cut in front of Zabaleta and find clear sailing on the rail. Besides, he said, "I didn't have any other options except to sit and wait."
So Day made the aggressive move to the rail. "Just as I did," he said, "Wheatly Hall leaned on Snow Chief and pushed him to the fence. Our hole was closed, and that opened the hole that Shoe came through."
Shoemaker could have driven a small truck through the opening that developed for Ferdinand, and the colt surged into contention. ("He can accelerate awfully quick," Whittingham said.) But Day and Rampage were stopped cold on the rail, blocked for a sixteenth of a mile and, by the time they eased out to the middle of the track, the race virtually was over. Rampage was outrunning everybody -- including Ferdinand -- at the end of the Derby, but his powerful effort only got him fourth place.
When Day dismounted, his first words to Thomas were: "You'll win the Belmont." Other people tried to console the trainer Sunday morning, pointing out that the colt had at least proved that he is a top-class competitor. But Thomas was inconsolable. Instead of being haunted by what might have been, he said, "I'd just as soon have gotten beat by 20 lengths."
The other victim of terrible racing luck in the Derby was a bit more philosophical, but he could afford to be. Wayne Lukas is the country's most successful trainer, and he knows he surely will win a Derby some day, but it still hurt to watch his colt Badger Land bumped as he left the gate, knocked out of contention, forced to race six-wide around both turns. All things considered, Badger Land had an even tougher trip than Rampage.
"I had the right horse," Lukas said. "I just about quit watching after the start, but he sustained a run for at least five-eighths of a mile and he ran a super race. It hurts -- damn, it hurts! -- but you can't cut your wrists and let them bleed in the sink. There is life after the Kentucky Derby."
Life after the Derby is the Preakness. Unlike last year, when Derby winner Spend a Buck defected from the race, most of the key horses at Churchill Downs will be shipping to Pimlico.
Ferdinand, Whittingham and Shoemaker will be there, assuring Pimlico of a prime box-office attraction. "If we'd finished second or third here, we would have waited for the Belmont," Whittingham said, "but we have to try for the Triple Crown."
Lukas is eager to give Badger Land another shot at Ferdinand. "We're definitely going to the Preakness," he said. The status of Derby favorite Snow Chief, who finished 11th with no visible excuse, is indefinite. Nor has Thomas decided where he will go next with Rampage, although he seemed to be leaning toward the Preakness rather than the $1 million Jersey Derby.
The Preakness could very well confirm the convictions of both Thomas and Lukas that they had a horse who should have won the Derby. That will give them some consolation, but nothing ever can take all the pain away.