LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Mike Harrington is content watching the hubbub of Kentucky Derby week from afar. The 71-year-old trainer is happily tucked away in a non-descript barn that lacks even the teeniest view of Churchill Downs’ magnificent Twin Spires.
Let the visitors be entertained by Bob Baffert’s jokes or eavesdrop on Todd Pletcher’s training tidbits.
Harrington prefers laying low with Creative Cause, one of the top betting choices for Saturday’s race.
The gray-roan colt has never finished out of the money in any of his eight career races, posting four wins, two seconds and two thirds. He’s among the best of five strong California-based horses in the expected 20-horse field. Of course, Baffert and Pletcher hold their usual strong hand, with two Derby horses each.
Harrington has but one.
“This is probably two derbies for me,” he said Tuesday. “It’s my first and my last.”
He certainly has the pedigree to be here. Harrington followed his father, grandfather and great-grandfather into the business, starting out training and racing quarter horses at bush tracks as a teenager. Later, he became a veterinarian and worked the racetracks until returning to training full time nearly 20 years ago.
Creative Cause is the best horse he’s ever had.
“Everybody grows up dreaming of going to the Kentucky Derby and most people realize they’re probably never going to make it, and I never thought I would make it,” he said. “You got guys like Baffert and Pletcher who have most of them (horses), so for a little guy like me it’s pretty rewarding.”
The colt is owned by Heinz Steinmann, an 80-year-old credited with bringing skiing to California from his native Switzerland. He owns Mountain High resort in Wrightwood, Calif., located in the mountains north of Los Angeles. He’s been Harrington’s main client for years and the two teamed to run Swiss Yodeler, who won some of California’s biggest stakes races and was a well-known stallion in the late 1990s.
Creative Cause has mixed it up on the Derby prep trail with Baffert’s top colt, Bodemeister, and trainer Doug O’Neill’s I’ll Have Another. He beat Bodemeister to win the San Felipe Stakes, and lost by a nose to I’ll Have Another in the Santa Anita Derby last month. As a 2-year-old, Creative Cause beat I’ll Have Another in the Best Pal Stakes and last fall finished third behind Derby rivals Hansen and Union Rags in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs.
“He falls under the radar, which I like. I don’t want him to be the favorite, I don’t want everybody talking about him,” Harrington said. “Everybody should be talking about Bodemeister, although my horse outrun him. Everybody should be talking about I’ll Have Another, although I outrun him also. Those three horses have traded punches, so who knows?”
Bodemeister, along with Hansen and Trinniberg, is expected to set a fast pace in the 1 1⁄4-mile Derby. Creative Cause likes to tuck in behind the leaders and stalk the pace. I’ll Have Another has good speed, but usually pushes the pace rather than sets it. O’Neill figures I’ll Have Another could lag in the middle of the pack.
“You just need to be running through the stretch,” O’Neill said. “It’s not so much how fast you’re running early but if you can stay out of trouble and have horse to run down the lane, you got a chance.”
Creative Cause has trained well on Churchill’s dirt track since arriving from Los Angeles. Harrington figures he’ll push him a bit harder this week to take the edge off so the colt won’t be too high-strung on Saturday, when more than 100,000 screaming fans will be on hand to watch him and the other Derby horses walk from the barn to the paddock.
“It’s a damn long ways over there,” said Harrington, who may skip the procession that some trainers say makes for an indelible Derby memory. “My main focus is being able to perform in the paddock and get the saddle on him. If the horse gets there 20 minutes before I do, what good am I going to be?”
Harrington would be easy to pick out of the parade of horses, owners, trainers and handlers. He’s the big guy wearing the big cowboy hat, and he’s the only first-timer at the Derby among the California-based trainers. Baffert has won three times, O’Neill has been here before, and so has Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer, who will saddle Rousing Sermon.
“I just keep telling people it’s just a race the first Saturday in May. This horse has run against good horses,” said Harrington, who gladly accepted a bottle of his favorite bourbon from a couple of barn visitors. “It’s not my first rodeo, it’s not like I’m going to be so overwhelmed that I can’t get out of bed in the morning.”
People keep telling Harrington he should be excited about finally having a Derby horse, but he doesn’t see a win changing his life.
“I doubt that I’ll get a flood of new horses. I don’t even want more clients,” he said. “I obviously would like more horses like this, but these kind of horses are really, really hard to come by.”
The Kentucky Derby
Saturday, 3:24 p.m. PDT post time; coverage on NBC starting at 1 p.m.