Friday, May 03, 2002

Like flying to the moon



By JIM LITKE
AP Sports Writer

        LOUISVILLE, Ky. — This is for those guys who will be long shots their whole lives, who run beat-up horses at broken-down tracks and know all about slipping from elation to misery in one race.

        “I'm 59,” Wilson Brown said Thursday morning on the backstretch at Churchill Downs, “and you know how in a fleeting moment you say to yourself, 'Wouldn't that be something, kind of like flying to the moon or such,' only you don't ever get to see it?

        “That's what this is like.”

        The 50-1 shot who carried Brown to his first Kentucky Derby is appropriately named It'sallinthechase.

        As threatening gray clouds clustered overhead, the bay colt lounged in a nearby stall and Brown's best friend, a fellow named Jerry Martin, stood behind him and nodded as tale after tale spilled out.

        Most began somewhere in Oklahoma and all of them involved horses, but only a few ended happily. Spend enough time in the training racket, where even the best are lucky to win 20 percent of the time, and you learn to live with disappointment.

        In that sense, Brown already holds a Ph.D, to go with his starched-white cowboy hat.

        He rode barebacks in the rodeo and broke quarterhorses to run in out-of-the-way places like Raton, N.M., and Halley, Colo., before graduating to thoroughbreds and middle-level tracks like Remington and Canterbury.

        Until It'sallinthechase dropped into his lap, Brown had never worked a horse good enough to carry him this far on the first Saturday in May, and he never thought he would.

        Still, he has yet to run across a horse that hasn't left its mark on him, sometimes literally.

        “My neck — to this day, if I sleep wrong, I wake up remembering getting thrown by one of them or the other,” he said.

        Brown doesn't remember exactly when he knew that racing would be his calling, only that he woke up one morning on the ranch of a farmer whose land his family was working and saw four dozen horses grazing beyond a fence.

        “I thought I'd died and gone to heaven,” Brown said.

        He'd already spent much of his childhood following the crops at harvest time back and forth across the Texas-Oklahoma panhandle, attending 13 schools before he was out of his teens. Reading about horses, dreaming about horses, and occasionally riding them, was as close to a consistent theme as his life allowed until he wound up in the Army at Fort Knox, near Louisville.

        “I thought about coming over here to Churchill, but the Army isn't big on pleasure trips and they don't pay real well,” he said.

        Not long after he got out, Brown drifted back home to Cement, Okla., and was training roping horses when a friend talked him into taking one over to a track called Apache Downs. There were no training facilities or grandstands to speak of, or even formal betting windows.

        “Most of the betting was man to man, and your chances of getting paid were good,” Brown said, laughing, “provided you were big enough.”

        Bar Money Steed won that afternoon and Brown was hooked. For the next few years, he packed his family into the car on Sundays and made a series of forays to hardscrabble tracks across western Oklahoma and Texas, where 20 races might be squeezed onto an afternoon's card.

        “I always made sure I had a full tank of gas when I got there,” Brown said. “Because all you might get is $100, $150 for winning a race. If you bought a few pitchers and ate lunch, you could wind up in the hole.”

        Bar Money Steed ran 56 races and finished first 48 times. Money was tight, but Brown believes it prepared him better than plenty of his contemporaries. Most important, he learned to spot talent in a heartbeat, a skill that came in handy for a beginner competing against trainers who could draw their contenders from a field of several dozen.

        When Brown saw It'sallinthechase in a training race at Lone Star outside Dallas with a price of $25,000 around his neck, he called Darwin Olson, his richest owner.

        “I told him, 'Darwin, this colt can cover some country.”'

        Soon after, they closed the deal. Olson has been offered several times that since.

        “The last time one came in, I called and Darwin said, 'Forget it, I'm not getting any younger.' So I told him, 'Me neither,”' Brown said, “and here we are.”

        After a week at Churchill Downs, Brown isn't so much in awe as simply honored to be standing where he and a thousand other trainers like him never dared to dream about.

        “A lot of those boys back there are as good a trainer as me or any of these other guys,” Brown said with a sweep of his arm. “They just never got the opportunity. And I know they'll be pulling for me so they can say, 'Yeah, I remember when I run against old Wilson Brown at one of them bush tracks and beat him.”'

        ———

        Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org

       



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