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Big butt stands in the way of this Derby dream.

Byline: David Ashforth

ON THE backside, a petite blonde lady turns to me and says: "What's his butt like?" I hadn't really noticed. "I don't know," I say, "but he's only got half a tail." "Friesan Fire has a big butt," she says, approvingly. And she's right, Friesan Fire does have a big butt.

It looks to me like a sprinter's butt and the Louisiana Derby winner leaps into his work like a tight cork from a shotgun and fires off a 57.8 second time for five furlongs; so keen and fast that he may get his big butt kicked on the run to the Derby wire today, which is farther from the starting gates than Friesan Fire's ever raced before.

At least he's got a full tail, unlike Pioneerof the Nile, the Santa Anita Derby winner, who's got half a tail and has never raced on dirt.

Trainer Bob Baffert, silver hair, dark sunglasses, you know he's from California, is standing outside barn 33, waiting for a man with a long grey ponytail to interview him. In a gravel voice, he asks Baffert to say something for a sound test. "One, two, three, bullshit," says Baffert.

" I ... wish ... I ... had ... your ... voice ... it's ... great." Baffert, three Derby winners to his name and just voted into the Hall of Fame, keeps quiet about Pioneerof the Nile's tail, but says: " We don'tS have to think any negative thoughts." And he doesn't.

He doesn't say, "I hope my horse acts on the dirt," he says, "I'm really hoping my horse improves on the dirt. We feel we have a very good horse. He looks fantastic.

Everything's been going really smoothly. We're all getting pins and needles." In horseracing, there's no better place to be than on the backstretch at Churchill Downs during the runup to the Derby. Even the early morning air seems right.

On the track, D Wayne Lukas, 73, four Derby winners to his name but isn't going to have a fifth with Flying Private, sits on his stable pony, leather chaps, black cowboy hat, watching.

Horses trot and gallop and blitz this way and that, ridden by alert young women, grizzled old men, jockeys from Puerto Rico and Peru, riding long and upright, riding short and crouched, whips sticking up from the back of their jeans.

Horses finish their work and walk back to their barns, where cameras and microphones and notebooks wait, their holders eager to hear the latest dreams. For the Kentucky Derby is a race of stories and dreams, where a small man may bring a big horse.

Outside barn 37, Tom McCarthy, 75 years old, washes down his one and only horse, General Quarters, who was claimed for $20,000 and has won over $600,000 and the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes. If he could win it ... but he can't. I hope he does.

And there, hobbling on crutches outside barn 42, a plate and a dozen screws in his broken leg, is Bennie Woolley jnr, former rodeo rider from New Mexico and trainer of Mine That Bird, whose owners pushed him to fire a flat-tyred bicycle at the sun.

Mine That Bird rolls in off the back of fourth place in the Sunland Derby. Hasn't got a chance and Woolley knows it, but the Derby comes round only once in a lifetime, less for most folks. T HE rain drifts down, just like they said it would, and the mob huddle under the eaves of barn 24, waiting for bad boy Jeff Mullins, who reads the rules with his spectacles off. If I Want Revenge wins the Derby, Mullins won't be with him in his barn the next day because Sunday is the first day of Mullins' latest suspension.

Part-owner Dave Lanzman, former lead singer with Bag Of Guilt turned mortgage consultant, fills the gap, two earrings in his left ear, none in his right, spectacles hooked around a chainlink necklace, tape recorders on the ends of outstretched arms reaching for his every word.

"Pioneerof The Nile might act on dirt but we know our horse does," he says. His partner Desirae walks up and gives him a kiss. It's like that with rock singers.

A few barns away, Todd Pletcher, 21 Derby starters and not a winner to his name, holds Dunkirk while the grey grazes on some grass. He seems to be good at grazing.

Eoin Harty, lean, dark spectacles, trainer of Mr Hot Stuff, chats, about the draw, and the jostle for position, and then says, "I think Desert Party will win," and why. Now that would be a story. There always is one, in the Derby.

David Ashforth talks to commentator Mark Johnson, page 24 Kentucky Derby card, page 61
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:May 2, 2009
Words:792
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