Saturday, May 3, 2003

Horse boasts history of a different tune

Indian Express the latest feather in Phil Chess' cap

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

LOUISVILLE - The horse was bred in Utah and began his racing career in Panama. The trainer rose from unsung work with quarter horses to become a three-time Kentucky Derby winner. The owner is an immigrant who became a legendary record producer. The jockey is a 20-year-old neophyte filling in for the winningest man in the sport, who also discovered this horse.


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Meet Indian Express. Or rather, meet the most intriguing tale in this Derby.

The only part of this tale casual fans may know is Bob Baffert's story. The irrepressible Californian has won three Eclipse Awards as the nation's top trainer, completing a climb from his 1980s specialization with quarter horses in Arizona.

That's where he met a man named Phil Chess, now 82.

Chess and his brother, Leonard, were Polish immigrants who owned a Chicago blues bar in the 1940s, specializing in African-American groups from the South. The popularity of their acts prompted the brothers to establish Chess Records, turning the site of their father's junk business into an office and studio.

Legendary blues acts such as Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker recorded there. After being rejected by two record labels, Chuck Berry was signed by the Chesses, who also signed Bo Diddley.

Their efforts were groundbreaking in a time of racial segregation, and the label brought rhythm and blues into the mainstream of America, where it was transformed into rock 'n' roll.

"We thought it was time," Chess told the Louisville Courier-Journal. "Blacks didn't have much music to listen to. And this music appealed to white people, too."

Legend has it the Rolling Stones were formed after Mick Jagger and Keith Richards struck up a conversation about a stack of Chess Records one was carrying. The Stones recorded parts of two albums at Chess.

Phil Chess retired in 1972 after Leonard's death and moved to Arizona. He developed an interest in racing and three years ago began sending Baffert horses to train.

Meanwhile, jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. gave Baffert - his neighbor in Arcadia, Calif. - a videotape of a horse that had won two races in Panama by 10 lengths each. It was the son of Indian Charlie, whom Baffert trained to a third-place finish in the 1998 Derby.

Baffert did some research on the Internet, and though reluctant - "He was running against goats," he says - paid $150,000 to buy Indian Express for Chess.

The idea was to have Pincay ride the horse, but racing's all-time winningest jockey broke his neck in a spill March 1 and retired Tuesday. The sub was Tyler Baze, who as an 18-year-old was named the nation's top apprentice jockey and is now rapidly building a reputation on the tough Southern California circuit.

Baze rode the horse to a fourth-place finish in his American debut, the San Pedro Stakes. Two weeks later, Baffert shocked everyone by entering his unknown horse in the Santa Anita Derby.

"That horse," Buddy Gil jockey Gary Stevens teased Baffert, "couldn't win the Tijuana Derby."

Yet it almost beat Buddy Gil that day, losing by a head. Chess didn't know what happened next.

"We go to the Derby," Baffert said.

"What Derby?" Chess said.

According to Churchill Downs' research, no Utah-bred has ever raced in the Derby, and none that prepped in Panama have won this race.

But hey, these folks are used to blazing trails.



By the numbers


Years since last Triple Crown winner (Affirmed)


Total purse


Winner's share


Auction price for Atswhatimtalknbout, the 10th-most expensive for a Derby horse


Post-time Derby favorite the past 23 years who has won (Fusaichi Pegasus, 2000)


Approximate number of fans expected


Trainers with their first Derby horse


When a horse last won off four previous starts, as Indian Express will try to do


When a gelding last won, as Buddy Gil and Funny Cide will try to do


Consecutive Eclipse Awards as top trainer won by Bobby Frankel, who saddles Empire Maker and Peace Rules today


Consecutive Derby mounts for jockey Pat Day

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