JOCKEY Calvin Borel guided Super Saver through the mud to win the the 136th Kentucky Derby at the weekend, to give trainer Todd Pletcher his first Derby win after 24 fruitless attempts.

Courtesy of the New York Times, here’s how sportswriter Joe Drape captured the magic of the race that stops the nation of America.

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky: On the first Saturday in May 2000, Todd Pletcher was a kid trainer greying prematurely and making his Kentucky Derby debut with four horses developed from what already was a deep and powerful barn. He was the picture of efficiency as he moved from paddock to paddock putting the saddles on his contenders.

When Impeachment rumbled home third, and More Than Ready held on for fourth place, no one could blame Pletcher if he thought someday soon he would be hoisting a blanket of roses over one of his horses.

It’s not easy, however, and 10 years later, on another first Saturday in May, the 42-year-old Pletcher was back beneath Churchill Downs’s twin spires checking the bridles of four more Derby horses, hoping one of them might accomplish what 24 of his charges had failed to do: get him to the winner’s circle after America’s greatest horse race.

When Eskendereya, the best horse Pletcher believed he had ever brought here, had swelling on his left front leg last Sunday and had to be pulled from the race, Pletcher’s face was as ashen gray as the frost on his ever-whitening head.

He had grown up following his father, J. J., on his rounds as a trainer in the barns and bush tracks of the grits-and-hard-toast circuits in the Southwest. All the while, he was dreaming about that blanket of roses.

Now it looked as if another opportunity had been snatched from his fingertips. Still, he went on. When Pletcher legged up Calvin Borel on a colt named Super Saver, he had a feeling as fleeting as the sunshine that flickered as the 20 colts took their place in the gate on what had been a rain-soaked day, that this might be his opportunity.

When Borel and Super Saver splashed into the stretch of the sloppy track all alone, Pletcher, who was glued to a television in the horseman’s lounge, scanned the screen. “At the three-sixteenths pole,” he said he thought, “this could happen. At the eighth pole, I was looking to see if anyone was coming — are we going to get there?”

When horse and rider crossed the finish line two and a half lengths ahead of the fast-closing Ice Box, Pletcher pumped his fist and beamed a smile that he had waited a lifetime to unloose.

“People said we had one with our name written on it,” said Pletcher, who had tired of having those words offered to him after disappointing Derby losses. “The one thing that was important to me. I wanted to do it when my parents were still here to see it.”

While the 136th running of the Kentucky Derby was a thing of beauty for Borel and Pletcher, it was a nightmare for a couple of trainers whose horses had their Derby aspirations crushed by taking the worst of a roughly run race.

Garrett Gomez and Lookin at Lucky went off as the 6-1 favorite but were crushed twice in the opening eighth of a mile. They had barely broken from the No. 1 post when first Willie Martinez and Noble’s Promise bounced Lookin at Lucky off the rail, then Mike Smith and American Lion followed with a body check.

“I quit watching him after the first bump,” the horse’s trainer, Bob Baffert, said after Lookin at Lucky finished sixth. “He was done. I wish Garrett had pulled him up. That’s horse racing.”

The Nick Zito-trained Ice Box was running fastest of all late, but had his chances for victory compromised in the stretch when jockey Jose Lezcano ran up on a herd of horses, got pinched and had to pull up. He then swung Ice Box, the Florida Derby champion, wide to launch a closing kick that collared Paddy O’Prado for second place, but was too late to run down Super Saver.

“At the half-mile pole, he started running, but I didn’t want to go wide in a 20-horse field,” Lezcano said. “I had to check again at the quarter pole, but he came again and made a big run.”

Earlier this week, Pletcher declared that Borel was a great rider on any track but was “five lengths better at Churchill Downs.” He gave his jockey only one instruction before the race.

“Ride him like you own him,” he told Borel, who knows about perseverance. Borel captured his first Derby in 2007, 14 years after he first heard “My Old Kentucky Home” from atop a horse.

Borel paid attention to the trainer. This is Borel’s home track, and he has become a legend here by staying attached to the rail of this oval like a merry-go-round horse, and letting all the Ping-Ponging take place ahead of him.

In 2007, he employed the tactic to bring Street Sense home for a Derby victory. Last year, he stuck to his guns and guided a little gelding named Mine That Bird to a 50-1 victory. He did it again Saturday, winning his third Derby in four years.

Borel, however, was far more tickled for Pletcher. “I know what it is like to work hard every day and wait for something like this,” he said.

This year the results chart will say that Super Saver, the bettors’ second choice, covered the mile and a quarter in 2 minutes 4.45 seconds, and rewarded his backers $18 for a $2 bet.

But it meant a whole lot more to a gray-haired trainer and his family.

After the race, Pletcher found his father and his mother, Jerrie, and gave them bear hugs.

“This is the best day of my life,” his mother told him.

He knew how she felt.


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