One of the horses in Saturday's 132nd running of the Kentucky Derby learned to come out of the gate at a humble public track in Utah. Not only that, Brother Derek — named for a Mormon missionary — is the 3-1 favorite to win.
Brother Derek was sold by a Utah businessman more than a year ago as part of a "pinhooking" operation, where horses are bought young, trained here and then sold to the highest bidder. The horse's former trainer, John Brocklebank, said many people would be surprised to see the public park where Brother Derek trained.
"It would blow their minds. There could be a little kid with a pony running aside a race horse," Brocklebank said.
At the suburban track south of Salt Lake City, two of the reasons Utah hasn't entered into national prominence for horse racing are clearly visible — snowcapped mountains to the east and west and a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple to the north. It can be cold here in the winter, and gambling is prohibited in Utah, where the Mormon church dominates politics and culture.
"It's not a racing state," said Jim Gluckson, senior director of event communications for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.
Utah has about 3,000 to 4,000 people in race horse breeding and training, and even more owners, said Stuart Sprouse, 69, president of the Utah Quarter Horse Association. There are probably about 100,00go, Brocklebank began training Brother Derek's brother. The two horses share a father and their mothers are sisters.
"The colts are a little similar," he said. "This horse is a little thicker. Brother Derek is more like a wide receiver. This one is like a linebacker."
The inability to gamble in Utah — and for horsemen to reap a percentage of it — has helped make the state a training ground for horses that compete in surrounding states.
Chad Giles, who trains horses across the street from the equestrian center, said Utah would get more recognition for its horse training if large tracks supported by gambling operated here.
"We have very, very outstanding bred horses and running horses. Horses from Utah can go to California, to New Mexico, anywhere, to compete. The problem is in Utah we have no pari-mutuel betting," he said. "If you want to run for real good money, you have to pay to take them to races in other states."
Some tracks depend on it.
"The majority of our horsemen come from Utah. That's always been the case," said Joan Ramos, director of corporate operations and development at Wyoming Downs in Evanston, Wyo.
Friday was opening day at Les Bois Horse Racing Park near Boise, Idaho. Bret Vickery, who trains horses in St. George in southern Utah, where the winters are mild, was headed there.
"It's a shame I have to go out of state to make the money I do. However, I love Utah for the climate," Vickery said.
He said Les Bois is the major race track in the Mountain West. His horses have raced throughout the West, including AB What a Runner, which won more than $1 million at the All-American Futurity at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico in 2002.
He's also seen other quarter horses and thoroughbreds trained in Utah go onto success.
Many in the Utah horse industry said they'll be rooting for Brother Derek — named for former owner Craig Tillotson's son — on Saturday, even if the 3-year-old thoroughbred now belongs to Cecil Peacock, a Canadian oilman, and is trained by Southern California-based Dan Hendricks. To them, Brother Derek is still one of Utah's own.
"We all have on our cheerleading outfits," Brocklebank said.