Friday, May 03, 2002

Journeyman trainer stops, smells the roses

Start in the Derby beyond a rodeo cowboy's wildest dreams

        LOUISVILLE’— Outside Barn 42, the rain turns each footprint into a puddle. Lightning crackles in the distance. Stragglers close their collars and pick up their pace to seek shelter from the storm.

        Wilson Brown stays as sunny as noon in Negril. The weather can't mar his mood. The odds don't diminish his delight. The 59-year-old Oklahoma trainer will be saddling his first Kentucky Derby horse Saturday afternoon — a preposterous long shot called It'sallinthechase — and for once in his life he's more interested in where he's starting than where he winds up.

        “I don't care where I finish,” Brown said Thursday morning. “I will always know that I started a horse in the Kentucky Derby. They can't take that away from me. I've got a lot of friends who train horses who will never be here. I wish they could be here once to see what this is.”

Harlan's Holiday, with exercise rider Helen Pitts up, is led off the track by Barry Berkelhammer.
(AP Photo/Al Behrman)
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        The Derby is one of those rare sports events that make grown men grow misty. It's the one race that needs no introduction and no hype, a mile-and-a-quarter cavalry charge that can turn an untried 3-year-old into an instant icon and a trainer into an oracle.

        Wilson Brown is not asking for immortality. He is glad to get goosebumps. It'sallinthechase is a 50-1 shot, loser of his last five starts, fresh off a ninth-place debacle in the Arkansas Derby. His past performance chart suggests his presence here is an indulgence rather than an investment. His trainer has no illusions about his chances.

        “Believe me, I've thought about it,” Brown said.’“There are some horses here that are going to go to the front. (D. Wayne) Lukas — he'll send 'em to the front. He says: "If you've got enough horse, come get me. If you don't have enough horse, you're in trouble.'

        “We want to be able to ease up with the top six, seven or eight of the field at the head of the stretch and let them try to make their move. In my mind, that's the only way we can win.”

        It'sallinthechase probably shouldn't be running for the roses Saturday afternoon. By rights, he should be pulling a plow. He's one of those equine imposters that annually infest the Derby, a $27,000 horse with just enough earnings to qualify and not enough shame to stay home. He's the Jed Clampett of Churchill Downs.

        Wilson Brown, however, is a welcome presence. He's a rugged old rodeo cowboy with a weakness for romance and tradition. He's been carrying on a long-distance love affair with the Derby for decades, to the extent that he has refused to race on the first Saturday of May for fear it might take him away from his television set.

        “Somebody asked,’"Is this a dream come true?'” Brown recalled. “I said no, because I never dreamed it. It would be like dreaming you'd win a $10 million lottery.”

        He stands in an archway of Barn 42 as It'sallinthechase is led on a leisurely loop around the building. The bay colt is draped by a white blanket that bears his name. The trainer wears a straw cowboy hat and the palpable excitement of a small child at a new theme park.

        Brown is waiting for his wife to arrive, and for the opportunity to have pictures taken beside his temporary quarters. For years, he has associated Barn 42 with Derby champions — this is where Secretariat and Seattle Slew were stabled — and his voice rises and the words rush as he talks of that tradition.

        Many horsemen regard the Derby with reverence. Wilson Brown can hardly help but gush. He started out training horses for rodeo, teaching them how to hold their ground when a rider dismounted to complete a calf-roping. He later competed with quarter horses in obscure places like Oklahoma's Apache Downs.

        “I've been to a lot of bush tracks and a lot of one-stop deals over the years,” he said. ’“You might race for $100. Sometimes, if you won a race, you could buy dinner and two pitchers and you went home in the hole. It's hard for a fellow who comes from my background, especially, to get in words what it means to be here.”

        Somehow, he succeeds in getting his point across. Outside, the rain continues. Inside Barn 42, Wilson Brown is beaming.

       Contact Tim Sullivan at 768-8456; e-mail:


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