An air of civility as thick as a rain cloud hangs over the Kentucky Derby this year. For once, it's not just the horses refusing to talk trash.
Bill Mott trains third-choice Favorite Trick, and he does not warm to the task easily. He came up through the thoroughbred ranks when deans like Charlie Whittingham and Woody Stephens took the measure of one another in the newspapers almost daily, when a well-timed barb could make a rival chafe just as much as sticking a burr under the saddle of his mount.
But at 44, despite having trained the super-horse Cigar and being elected to the Hall of Fame this week, Mott feels too young to start throwing his wit around.
"We do some kidding around," he said, "but I'm sure if I was 20 years older, the jokes would go over a lot better."
The rain pounds a steady beat on the roof of Mott's stable, and there is that little bit of mischief welling in his eyes. The gleam is reminiscent of Stephens in the days leading up to the big race, lecturing about the nerve-racking pressure on his rivals, then thrusting out his hands and flashing the diamond-studded horseshoe ring on his third finger. "And you'll notice," Stephens would say, turning his palms up, "that mine just don't sweat anymore."
Ten years ago, Stephens was a few months shy of his 75th birthday and wrapping up a Hall of Fame career. His favorite target then was D. Wayne Lukas, who was still struggling mightily just to come up with a legitimate Derby contender. Lukas was already racing's organization man, and his desire to win was so raw that Stephens and Whittingham never lacked for material with which to taunt him.
They treated racing like an art, and to them, Lukas was science. They were folksy and he was corporate. They were amused because he had grooms manicure the grounds around his stable and insisted the bridles and buckets and blankets be stacked just so. They had fun with the creases in his jeans and the starch in his manner.
But the biggest difference then was that they had won and he was still trying. No more. Success has smoothed over whatever sting the words carried long ago. Lukas' filly, Winning Colors, held off Stephens' Forty Niner to win the Derby that year and he has claimed two more in the 1990s. Once slammed for trying to overwhelm his competitors with sheer quantity _ some years, Lukas has saddled as many as 1,700 entrants _ he is now respected for the quality horses his stables routinely produce. Today, he saddles his record 33rd Derby starter, Cape Town.
And at age 62, with Stephens having passed on and Whitting-ham making fewer and fewer forays from his California training base, Lukas has become the elder statesman among trainers at the Derby. So much so that this week he refused to be drawn into a rivalry with Nick Zito, the sometimes-blunt New Yorker who is a dozen years his junior and already has two Derby wins this decade.
"Nick and I talked about that the last couple of years. We're 1-2," Lukas said, "or 2-1. Or whatever."
Zito, who will saddle second-choice Halory Hunter, didn't deny the rivalry, though he couldn't be drawn into a numbers game.
"It's like when the same guys are showing up every year, just like at the NCAA Tournament with (Mike Krzyzewski) and Dean Smith. It's somewhat of a rivalry and it should be," he said. "That's just healthy for the sport."
Healthier still is the arrival of Mott and last year's Derby winner, Bob Baffert, into that small circle of trainers with the talent and connections to get to the Derby year after year. Racing desperately needs superstars and rivalries, and since the horses can't do the talking, it needs every articulate front man it can muster.
That's what made Baffert's victory with Silver Charm last year so welcome. He is never, ever at a loss for words.
But when asked to trash somebody, anybody, he actually responded seriously: "If I don't win, then I hope a new face gets in. I wish every trainer could know the excitement of winning the Kentucky Derby. It's the greatest feeling in the world."