Horse racing notebook: Monday good for Derby workouts

Detroit News wire services
Jockey Gary Stevens works out Kentucky Derby hopeful Mor Spirit at Churchill Downs on Monday.

Louisville, Ky. — A day after storms drenched Churchill Downs, Kentucky Derby horses Mor Spirit, Gun Runner and stablemate Creator enjoyed sunny skies and solid footing in their final workouts for racing’s marquee event.

All three came through Monday’s workouts in good order as a result, with newly elected Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen particularly encouraged by the showings of Gun Runner and Creator entering Saturday’s 142nd Run for the Roses. Said Asmussen, “they’re cooling out extremely well and we’re very excited for the Derby.”

Fellow Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert was just as confident about Mor Spirit, his lone Derby pupil this year after guiding eventual Triple Crown champion American Pharoah and Dortmund here last May. The colt covered five furlongs in 59.80 with jockey Gary Stevens aboard.

“It went just as planned,” Baffert said. “Gary was happy with him. He loves the surface. He goes over it much better than Santa Anita. That’s half the battle, if they like it.”

Baffert has tempered expectations of Mor Spirit following American Pharoah as a Triple Crown champion and noted that it took 37 years before that stellar colt finally succeeded last spring.

Stevens was just as cautious and pointed out that Saturday’s challenge will be trying to knock off unbeaten Nyquist, the likely favorite in the 1 1/4-mile Derby featuring 20 entrants. But he suggested anything was possible with the colt’s impressive record — three wins and four seconds in seven starts — and his progress toward the Derby after a runner-up finish to Exaggerator in the Santa Anita Derby.

“Like Bob has said, he’s no American Pharoah, but we don’t know that yet,” said the Hall of Fame jockey, who was second in last year’s Derby aboard Firing Line.

“Maybe lightning can strike two years in a row, who knows? We’ll see what happens.”

Most important on Monday was the absence of lightning and any threatening weather on a mostly sunny morning. The track was in surprisingly great shape and gave the trio of Derby hopefuls something to work with.

Derby points leader Gun Runner, who has four wins with a fourth in the Grade 2 Kentucky Club Stakes at Churchill, ran four furlongs in 50.40. Creator, who enters sixth with 110 points after his Arkansas Derby victory nearly three weeks ago, covered the same distance in 50.60.

The performances were just what Asmussen wanted with five days remaining before the Derby, and he was thankful for the dry surface that made them possible.

“I’ve been very happy with how they’ve done here at Churchill,” Asmussen said. “The best news of the morning was the condition of the track. To come out this morning and see how good a shape it was in was very pleasant. It definitely made the morning go well.”

Derby favorite’s owner likes Wing-ing it with horses

Desormeauxes seeking record double

The colt appeared suddenly on her television screen, surging from 16 lengths behind on a sloppy track he loved. As Exaggerator splashed to a 6 1/4 -length Santa Anita Derby triumph, a 72-year-old grandmother acted like she had hit a life-changing Pick 6.

The living room celebration on Placide Road in tiny Maurice, La., had nothing to do with money, although Brenda Desormeaux could not have been more heavily invested. The winning trainer was her firstborn, Keith. The rider was Kent, his brother. “I’ve seen hundreds of Kent’s races, and I was screaming and hollering like I’d never seen one before,” she told Newsday.

On Saturday, Keith, 49, and Kent, 46, will try to become the first trainer-jockey brother combination to win the world’s most coveted race, the Kentucky Derby.

“It’s something you fantasize about but never think will become reality,” Brenda said. “It’s almost a miracle, a dream come true for the parents and the boys. There’s been a lot of excitement in our little metropolis of Maurice. NBC was here six hours doing a feature.”

The other siblings who tried to win the Derby together didn’t come close, with Nick and Jimmy Combest seventh in 1964 and the Romeros, Gerald and Randy, 12th in 1993. Hall of Famer Kent Desormeaux has won the Derby on Real Quiet (1998), Fusaichi Pegasus (2000) and Big Brown (2008). For Keith, it’s his debut.

“This is a Hollywood story for me,” he said. “It’s old hat for Kent. For me, it’s surreal ... It’s still sinking in that we’re here.”

Misfortune kept the Cajun brothers — the Meaux Breaux, as Kent tweeted — from collaborating in last year’s Derby. Texas Red’s easy win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile made him the winter-book favorite, but a foot abscess knocked him out of the Triple Crown.

Exaggerator is 4-for-9 lifetime but has been beaten by likely favorite Nyquist three times.

Race-caller gets extension

His voice already belongs to history, and now Larry Collmus has another five years to see if he gets to call another Triple Crown.

NBC Sports recently signed the race-caller to a five-year contract extension. Financial terms were not available.

Collmus joined NBC in 2011. It was his voice millions of racing fans heard when American Pharoah won last year’s Belmont Stakes to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

The end of his exhilarating call went this way: “And here it is! The 37-year wait is over! American Pharoah is finally the one! American Pharoah has won the Triple Crown!”

“Luckily,” Collmus recalled, “the words came out the way I wanted them to.”

After calling his first Kentucky Derby for NBC, Collmus said he thought, “no way it can get better than this.”

In 2012, I’ll Have Another won the Derby and Preakness but was retired the day before the Belmont because of an injury. No Triple try that year, but in 2014, Collmus was ready for California Chrome’s attempt that came up short in the Belmont, which was won by Tonalist.

“He’s a furlong from immortality,” Collmus said excitedly as California Chrome tried to rally. “He’s up on the outside of Commissioner. Here’s Wicked Strong in the center of the track. Commissioner. California Chrome on the outside. Tonalist … It won’t be a Triple Crown this year.”

And then American Pharoah came along, and Collmus’ TV call will live on with Chic Anderson’s Triple Crown calls of Affirmed (1978), Seattle Slew (1977) and Secretariat (1973).

“Nothing in my race-calling career could ever compare to that,” he said of calling a Triple Crown.

As for Saturday’s Derby, Collmus figures, what’s not to like about Nyquist?

“It still seems like there are a lot of doubters,” said Collmus, who called the unbeaten colt’s win in the Florida Derby. “He’s really been the dominant force in the 3-year-old division, and in Florida he wasn’t even the favorite. He’s always found a way to win. There’s really no reason not to like him.”

Collmus’ call will be streamed live by NBC Sports Live Extra, which will have a camera in his booth at Churchill Downs.