LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Almost as if it were choreographed, the two Pennsylvania-breds hit the track simultaneously on a perfectly glorious spring morning.
At 8:30, Hard Spun, emerging from Barn 41, and then Great Hunter from Barn 28 came out of contiguous backstretch gaps, were sent the wrong way around the first turn at Churchill Downs and then ducked into the paddock to get familiar with what will be a tumultuous scene Saturday as 20 horses get saddled for the Kentucky Derby.
Great Hunter was back out to the track quickly, Hard Spun lingered in the paddock. Great Hunter galloped very strongly, rolling between poles, weaving in and out of all the traffic that makes a clocker's job very much like an equine version of an Air Traffic Controller.
Hard Spun, two days after an extremely fast workout, wasn't asked for much by his exercise rider. He was sort of cruising.
By 8:45, the two horses were walking off the track at the exact same moment, again almost as if there were some cosmic convergence. How cosmic will be determined when the massive field begins to sort itself out on the far turn.
Back at the barn, Hard Spun's owner, Rick Porter, decked out in shorts and sneakers, was enjoying the moment. He was here before with a Derby horse that had no chance. He was almost here 2 years ago with a horse (Rockport Harbor) that would have had a good chance. Now he is here with a horse that has lost just once, clearly has talent, but is untested against the other major contenders.
"It's any owner's dream that has a passion for horse racing to get to the biggest race there is," said Porter, the Wilmington car dealer. "Let's face it. The Kentucky Derby is what it's all about. Everybody thinks about it. I came down a week ahead of time just to enjoy the whole deal. It's a lot of fun, a lot of anxiety, a lot of excitement."
Like so many horses in this Derby, Hard Spun is hard to read. He won his first four races by a combined 28 lengths, but he did not run particularly fast, nor did he beat any horses of note. Then he ran fourth against a suspect field in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park, followed by a dominating win in the Lane's End Stakes, where he ran fast enough that he had to be considered a Derby contender.
After that race, trainer Larry Jones said Hard Spun would go for the Blue Grass. Then he changed his mind and said Hard Spun would come into the Derby off a 6-week layoff. The colt worked nicely at Churchill and then very slowly (1:42.4 for a mile) at Keeneland. It was hard to know what to think.
Monday, Hard Spun scorched 5 furlongs in 57.53 seconds at Churchill. It was really fast, maybe too fast.
There is an old saying at the track: It's not about how fast a horse runs, but how a horse runs fast. Comparing times run on different days is always tricky because track surfaces change so much.
Smarty Jones' final Derby workout in 2004 was 5 furlongs in 58.29 seconds. Barbaro's final work last year was 59.48 seconds. Clockers were unanimous in their praise of both works, saying they were the best of any Derby contender. Hard Spun's work was not looked at the same way.
Hard Spun, working in company with a very fast stablemate, went very fast early and not very fast at the end. Smarty Jones and Barbaro went at a more reasonable rate early and finished very strongly.
The numbers tell the story. Smarty Jones went :11.46, :34.20, :46.55 and then galloped out 6 furlongs in 1:11.49. Barbaro went his first eighth in :13.06 and his last 3 furlongs in :34.42 while galloping out in 1:12.14. Those two were going as fast or faster at the end as at the beginning.
Hard Spun went :10.88, :22, :44.52 and then galloped out in 1:12.97. He was slowing down dramatically, which suggests the super-fast fractions might have taken their toll.
"[Jones] was concerned after that mile work and he wanted to put a good solid fast work into him this time," Porter said.
It was definitely fast.
"I know we took a lot of heat off that," Porter said. "Some people thought it was a good work. Some people thought it was too fast."
Generally speaking, Mondays are not for fast; Saturdays are for fast.
In horse racing, there are not many degrees of separation. Porter once owned a nice race mare named Zenith. After her racing career ended, he sold her. Zenith is the dam of Great Hunter.
"It's a total crapshoot," Porter said. "I sold Jostle and she's been basically a flop so far."
Jostle, trained by John Servis, was one of the best racing fillies of her generation. But success on the track guarantees nothing when horses are bred. Jostle appears to have been well-sold for nearly $2 million.
At this stage, Great Hunter is more accomplished than Hard Spun. His last seven starts have been in graded stakes races. He has been tested over and over again against the best. What all this means for Saturday is conjecture. They will all be coming out of the same gate.
"I probably had him a tad under-trained going into the Blue Grass," said Great Hunter's trainer, Doug O'Neill. "The way that race turned out to be a mad dash home, he might not have been ready for that."
Judging by Great Hunter's appearance yesterday, he is now more ready.
"He puts a lot of energy into the last part of his gallops," O'Neill said. "He's ready."
O'Neill won a Breeders' Cup race here last fall with Thor's Echo (Sprint) just like Porter did with Round Pond (Distaff). The Derby is a whole different deal.
"It's awesome," O'Neill said. "You hear all about it. To actually be living it . . . The thing I like about it the most is that the horses are the celebrities. I feel like I'm the spokesperson for the horse."
So it's Great Hunter and Hard Spun from Pennsylvania against 16 horses from Kentucky and two from Florida. And each other. *