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Kentucky Derby Goes On Without Some Big Names

Tradition abounds at the Kentucky Derby, yet the 132nd race will go on without some familiar faces Saturday.

Fans searching their programs for Derby horses trained by D. Wayne Lukas, Bobby Frankel and Nick Zito or ridden by Jerry Bailey, Pat Day and Gary Stevens are out of luck.

That group of Hall of Famers is sidelined this year. And for the jockeys, who combined to win six Derbies, it's permanent because each has retired since last year's Run for the Roses.

"When you don't see Wayne or Nick here, you got to be a little surprised," said Todd Pletcher, a former Lukas assistant with two starters.

The absences have set the stage for a slew of first-time Derby trainers and jockeys to seize the spotlight with a victory.

"It's gratifying to see the new people that haven't had a shot," Zito said. "That's great for our sport."

The public may not know trainers Michael Matz (Barbaro), Michael Trombetto (Sweetnorthernsaint), Tom Albertrani (Deputy Glitters), Mark Casse (Seaside Retreat) or Daniel Peitz (Steppenwolfer).

And riders Shaun Bridgmohan, Patrick Husbands, Fernando Jara and Jose Lezcano are making their Derby debuts, too.

They're part of what Bailey regards as a changing of the guard in an industry constantly seeking its next superstar horse or human.

"You have to allow the process to work itself out and they will reveal themselves as the sport continues," he said. "We know it's cyclical."

Frankel's four-year run of having Derby starters ended this year. However, he hasn't emphasized developing colts for the Triple Crown series as heavily as Lukas and Zito.

"It doesn't bother me," he said. "I got some nice 3-year-olds, but I don't want to butcher them up just to run in the Derby."

Lukas has four Derby wins from a record 42 starters, and Zito said his rival's absence "is odd, especially because he'd run anything."

Lukas is missing the race for the third time in six years after a record run of 20 straight.

"It's hard to feel any remorse in light of the fact that we've had so many good ones and had such a good run all these years," he said.

Lukas remains a Derby week presence at Churchill Downs, though.

He plans to saddle four horses on the Derby undercard, and had Ex Caelis in the Kentucky Oaks for fillies Friday.

He's also in demand among some nervous first-timers.

"I've had a couple of trainers that have called me and said, `What would you do with this horse if you had him?"' Lukas said. "I've given them my advice freely."

He'll root for two of his protDegDes — Pletcher and Kiaran McLaughlin — who have two horses each in the Derby.

Zito's absence is especially notable, coming a year after the two-time winner sent out a record five horses, including favorite Bellamy Road. He's started 19 Derby horses in his career.

That horse finished seventh — the best among Zito's group. He had plenty of prospects this year, but none came through in the Derby preps.

Seeing other trainers parade their hopefuls to the track for workouts left Zito with "kind of an empty feeling."

"For me, it was like a little bit of anxiety," he said. "I have to try to get there again."

Like the others, Bailey knows he will acutely feel his outsider status when the Derby Day crowd sings along to "My Old Kentucky Home."

"I'm sure there'll be little pangs of anxiety and remembrance and longing to be back for that particular moment," he said. "I know how hard it is to win and there's a lot of disappointment after the race. I'll be more on an even keel this year."

Lukas, 70, recently consolidated his stable of 65 horses exclusively in Kentucky, a significant downsizing for a trainer whose territory stretched from East to West, with outposts in between.

"If we were back up to where we were in the mid-'80s and mid-'90s, we would have never done that," he said.

But Lukas has fewer clients — having lost some to death and desertion — and that means fewer horses. He bailed out of New York after 20 years, tired of running third or fourth and making little money.

"There's obviously an adjustment going on," he said. "Your resume is out there for the world to see, so I don't go out and hustle anybody, but you'd like to have somebody pick up the phone."

Lukas isn't one to be easily discouraged. Even during slow times, he's capable of suddenly getting hot again, like in October when Folklore won the $1 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.

He plans to jump on the Triple Crown trail by entering Simon Pure in the May 20 Preakness.

"About the time they say, 'Well, he's not in the Derby this year,' I'll win the Preakness," he said. "I have a way of landing on my feet."