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Kentucky Derby Day can make even the most backwater racetrack seem like a mint '57 Chevy. The Derby is the first -- and arguably most unpredictable -- leg of a Triple Crown marathon for three-year-old horses that also comprises the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore and the Belmont Stakes in New York. The three races are run within the space of just over a month in late spring, giving novice Thoroughbred fans worldwide a fleeting glimpse of the sport's gilded age, long since passed. Derby Day is Fairmount Park's biggest day of the year, and on this first Saturday in May, a postcard-perfect sunny 65 degrees all but guarantees a crowd in excess of 11,000 at the hardscrabble Collinsville track.
This year, Fairmount-based owner Lou O'Brien's money is on the Bobby Frankel-trained Empire Maker, by far the classiest horse in the field. But as O'Brien will tell you, the best horse doesn't always win the Derby.
"Derby Day is like New Year's Eve," says O'Brien, seated in his private box on the glass-encased mezzanine level of Fairmount's grandstand. "It's amateur day. That's why if you know what you're doing, you can get a real nice price on a horse."
From the paunch that overlaps his casually classy khakis to his slicked-back silver hair and diamond-encrusted horseshoe pinkie ring, O'Brien looks like a man who has lived every minute times two of his 66 years. Friends and associates attribute his physique and trademark gravelly voice to his dogged dedication to Pall Mall cigarette consumption and a life of leisure.
Today O'Brien is accompanied by his grandson Timmy O'Brien, a 23-year-old financial analyst who has been going to the track with his grandfather since the age of four. O'Brien used to attend all of his horses' races at Fairmount, night or day. These days he typically cedes his box to his grandson at night; during races in which O'Brien has entries, Timmy assiduously communicates by cell phone, explaining why a particular animal thrived or gave way in the homestretch.
"He calls Timmy his agent," O'Brien's wife, Lois, explains. "He used to think the horses couldn't win without him there. He doesn't really care if he's over there now or not."
O'Brien's accountant, Rick Rudolph, recalls one instance when he caught tears of joy welling up in the owner's eyes after I'm a Timmy Too, a horse he named after his grandson, won a race. When pressed by Rudolph for an explanation, O'Brien said it was just dust.
On their way down to the paddock to visit their first entry of the day, O'Brien and Timmy stop to buy a little merchandise from the Paradise Valley Pony Club, which is raising money to find nonracing careers for retired racehorses. There was a time, according to Lois O'Brien, when her husband would buy old horses and put them out to pasture on his farm just to save them from a likely trip to the slaughterhouse. Today's $15 act of charity represents a solid middle ground, a tempering of O'Brien's four-hanky emotional streak with his still-emerging intellectual grasp of racing's big picture.
O'Brien and Timmy saunter over to the stall where O'Brien's father-son trainer tandem, Raul and Ralph Martinez, are awaiting Bonjoiu, a four-year-old maiden who has finished among the top three in six of eight lifetime starts but has yet to notch a win. The men watch as a groom guides the horse into his stall to be saddled. Eight minutes before post time, diminutive, freckle-faced jockey Jesse Wheat Jr. is hoisted aboard and takes the reins in the green-and-white silks that are the signature of Shamrock Meadows Stable.
The two O'Briens retreat to their box, where they watch Wheat and Bonjoiu take third place in the five-furlong race after swinging too far wide entering the stretch. Finishing third -- or "showing," in horse parlance -- is like kissing your sister, offers O'Brien, half-seriously threatening to fire Wheat for the gaffe.
"I think I fired you as my grandson once," he jokes, turning to Timmy.
By Derby Day's end, an unheralded horse named Funny Cide has toppled Empire Maker to become the first gelding since 1929 to win the Kentucky Derby en route to a shot at the coveted Triple Crown, which wraps up Saturday, June 7, with the running of the Belmont in New York. O'Brien's horses, meanwhile, have won four of seven races, highlighted by a track record at the rare distance of two furlongs set by a talented but injury-prone eight-year-old warhorse named Glit.
"That was an efficient day," says Timmy.
A similar evaluation could sum up Shamrock Meadows' 2003 campaign thus far -- and, for that matter, the previous two. After a woeful 1999 season at the Collinsville track, O'Brien and the Martinezes got serious, so serious that in 2001 Lou O'Brien quietly emerged as the third-winningest racehorse owner in all of the United States. The Martinezes posted the highest winning percentage among trainers that year -- a 38 percent clip -- and ranked ninth in total wins. In 2002 O'Brien was fifth in total wins nationwide, and again in 2003, Shamrock Meadows occupies a slot near the top of the rankings.
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