Another 'Cinderella' heads to Kentucky Derby

Apr 14, 2009 5:03 PM
Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein |

Blue Grass winner a hero in the making

The result of the $750,000 Bluegrass at Keeneland last Saturday came as no surprise here.

It had nothing to do with a hot tip or clairvoyance or selecting the 14-to-1 winner, General Quarters. I knew nothing about the colt, did not bet him, and like most of the gratifying crowd of 27,778 that turned out at one of the nation’s most beautiful tracks, Keeneland, I did not expect him to win,

What I did know was that thoroughbred racing would again somehow luck out with a Cinderella story, as it does annually with the Kentucky Derby, and that America’s greatest horse race would have a national public favorite, if not a betting favorite, going into the classic.

Keeneland’s Bluegrass has produced more Kentucky Derby winners than any other race. It has sent horses like Spectacular Bid and Northern Dancer on the 60-mile voyage from Lexington to Louisville, and to victory there.

The Wood at Aqueduct has not been quite as successful, but it has sent the Derby classic winners like Seattle Slew and Fusaichi Pegasus, Bold Forbes and Foolish Pleasure, and of course Secretariat, who finished third in the Wood.

These stars all carried their own stories, but in recent years it was charisma rather than greatness that gave writers the fuel to light the Derby fire.

Last year Big Brown was the success story, hyped and hollered about and a winner, but his victory was dulled a few yards past the finish when Eight Belles went down and changed American racing.

Before that came darlings of the public like Funny Cide in 2003 and Smarty Jones the following year, capturing the people’s fancy with their catchy names and then producing by winning the Derby.

There was no such drama in 2005, but then, three years ago, came Barbaro and his Derby win, his gory injury in the Preakness and the continuing national coverage of his recuperation. Then he was gone, larger in death than in life.

Now, two years later, another human interest natural bursts on the scene, defying even a script writer’s imagination.

This one is owned and trained by a 75-year-old former high school science teacher and principal who raised five kids and trained horses on the side. His name is Tom McCarthy, and he is training a one-horse stable these days. That one horse – General Quarters – stormed home at Keeneland in the Blue Grass and suddenly winds up a sentimental Derby favorite.

McCarthy, genial and gracious and colorful, fills the hero role perfectly. He claimed General Quarters as a 2-year-old last year for $20,000, and having trained for 50 years he knows full well that lightning has struck. He also knows that this sudden celebrity is not likely to come his way again, and he jokingly referred to that when he told reporters, "I hope that clock doesn’t strike 12 right away. I hope it will wait awhile. It’s been exciting, very exciting. I’ve always been on the outside looking in, not quite good enough to go on to different stages. Before this, the most I’ve ever won were allowance races. I’ve been watching other people train good horses. This time, thank God, I’ve got a good horse."

Last Saturday McCarthy won $465,000, sending General Quarter’s career earnings to $641,735, which makes up for a lot of allowance races and science classes. The victory did not come as a surprise to McCarthy.

"He trained like a champion all week," he said about the General after the Blue Grass. "I had him right where I wanted him. I was very, very confident that he would run a wonderful race. I think he exhibited the tenacity to go on to the Derby. Once he gets moving, he’s like a big train – hard to stop."

Despite the victory, General Quarters is not likely to be the betting favorite. That role most probably will belong to I Want Revenge or Quality Road.

But with its luck holding, thoroughbred racing has a second human interest horse, besides General Quarters, for the public to cheer in this year’s Derby.

Larry Jones, who trained Eight Belles to a second place finish in last year’s Derby and lost her when she fell seconds later, had another Kentucky Derby hopeful (Old Fashioned) finish second last Saturday in the Arkansas Derby, and lost him as well with a fractured knee.

That leaves Jones, who is retiring this year, with still another top hopeful, Friesan Fire, unbeaten in 2009 and certain to command heavy support.

Between now and May 2 you will see thousands of words written about these horses. They have provided drama for the writers and broadcasters, and have the appeal to generate huge interest in this year’s Derby.

Whether you go to Louisville or watch the Derby on TV, give a cheer for Tom McCarthy and Larry Jones. What a story – and what an exacta – they would make.