Arkansas Derby (G1) winner ARCHARCHARCH (Arch) was the picture of calm composure as he waited in the "Holthus Gap" for the track to open at 8:30 a.m. (EDT) after the Thursday morning renovation break at Churchill Downs.
With hundreds of onlookers lining each side of the entrance to the track, Kentucky Derby (G1) hopeful Archarcharch, with jockey Jon Court up, never turned a hair as he waited patiently alongside veteran trainer Jinks Fires, who was astride his pony.
That cool demeanor figures to be a plus Saturday in Derby 137 for Archarcharch, who landed in post position 1 and will have one of the longest waits in the gate as the field of 20 is loaded.
"He has always been good in the gate," Fires said. "It (the one hole) could be a concern for a rowdy horse who could blow it right in the gate."
After the wait, Archarcharch galloped 1 1/2 miles and will do the same thing Friday morning before staying in the barn Saturday morning.
Owned by Robert and Val Yagos, Archarcharch represents the first Kentucky Derby starter for all the connections. Fires and Court are Churchill Downs regulars and Yagoses live in Jacksonville, Arkansas, and last attended the Derby in 2005.
Court, 50, has ridden more than 3,000 winners, of which more than 300 have come at Churchill Downs. To prepare for his initial Derby ride, some film study has been conducted by Court.
"I watched videos of the starts of past Derbys, looking at spots we thought we'd like before we got the one hole and some of those made me a little nervous," Court said. "I left with a knot in my stomach. I am going to go back and look again at those races."
Fires has one hope for how things unfold for Archarcharch.
"I just hope he gets out of the gate and can save some ground," Fires said.
Owner Robert LaPenta was on hand to watch DIALED IN (Mineshaft) school in the starting gate before galloping at Churchill Thursday morning. His 4-1 morning-line favorite will be his fifth Derby starter, all trained by Nick Zito.
"We really believe this year we have a special horse," said LaPenta, taking a play out of Zito's game book and knocking the wooden stable sign hanging outside the shedrow of Barn 36. "We've been fortunate to be here in five Derbies in the past10 years -- when I think about it I get chills -- and we've been here with some nice horses, but I think this year we have something special, which puts some added pressure on us."
LaPenta has been represented by The Cliff's Edge (fifth in 2004), Andromeda's Hero (eighth in 2005), Cool Coal Man (15th in 2008) and Ice Box, who finished a troubled second in last year's Run for the Roses.
"You read the lines on the race: stopped, checked, stopped, and then he came out at the 16th pole and just exploded," said LaPenta, whose 2010 Derby starter closed from 11th in midstretch to fall 2 1/2 lengths short of catching victorious Super Saver.
LaPenta, who owned 2008 Belmont S. (G1) winner Da' Tara, has been a loyal client of Zito's since 2001, when he started his own stable after partnering with Rick Pitino for a few years.
"Before I got involved in the game in a meaningful way, I used to watch the races on TV and Nick was great at developing young horses -- very patient, a lot different than other trainers. I always said, 'When I get into racing in a meaningful way, Nick is going to be my trainer.'"
Zito, who saddled Strike the Gold (1991) and Go for Gin (1994) for Derby victories, impressed LaPenta with his horsemanship with young horses.
"To be successful in this sport, you need to have a trainer who develops horses for the classics," the owner said. "You can't make money racing; you need to develop a horse that wins some of the big races, so ultimately they have some value as a stallion. So that was my whole game plan, and Nick fit that perfectly. Nick has gone beyond a trainer now. We have a great relationship. We're friends and partners."
Dialed In will be ridden Saturday at Julien Leparoux, who was aboard the dark bay colt for all four of his starts, including a debut score at Churchill Downs last November and a victory in the Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park in his most recent start.
George and Lori Hall's homebred Louisiana Derby (G2) hero PANTS ON FIRE (Jump Start) galloped 1 1/2 miles during the Derby-Oaks (G1) training session.
"Awesome day again today," trainer Kelly Breen said. "It was a pretty stiff gallop, into the bit. He did it easy but it was quick. Between (Wednesday) and today it's amazing watching him, like poetry in motion. He was just so smooth and fluid he floated over the track.
"To hear him, you know, you have horses out there that are as big as him and they hit the ground rough. It's like the difference between a regular center and Shaq. He was light on his feet and he really looked great."
The connections will take a closer look at the past performances the next few days to shore up their race strategy but, one way or another, they know they'll be near the lead.
"We already have a plan that he's going to be part of the pace," Breen said. "That's our vision. We have a horse to the inside of us, Comma to the Top, that I think is great for us, deciphering where we're going to be. We have Dialed In to the outside of us and we know he's not going. So I think we have a good start to our planning, knowing that Dialed In isn't going to be hustling next to us."
Rosie Napravnik will be aboard Pants on Fire, who George Hall explained was named by some of his longtime friends in the New Orleans Fire Department.
"I happened to have dinner with them the night after the Keeneland sale, where I had bought a bunch of horses." Hall said. "I was telling them about the whole horse process and I told them, guys, pick a name and you'll have a horse to root for. This is the one."
Dual Grade 3-placed stakes winner DECISIVE MOMENT (With Distinction) went to the track for a morning gallop under trainer Juan Arias.
"I galloped him about a mile and a half and let him pick it up through the lane," said the 46-year-old Arias, a South Florida-based trainer who also serves as his Derby entrant's exercise rider.
Ruben Sierra, who races as Just For Fun, was on hand for the routine morning exercise of his homebred colt. He developed an interest in racing as a boy in Caracas, Venezuela, and received his first horse, a 25-percent interest in a filly that won two races, on his 12th birthday.
"From that moment I've been dreaming of this day. To have the opportunity to participate in this event is a dream come true," said Sierra, who graduated from Memphis State (now the University of Memphis) with a degree in mechanical engineering and worked for a grain company in Kansas City 14 years. "To be here is a little surreal."
The 46-year-old Davie, Florida, resident opened his own grain export company in South Florida in 2000 and five years later purchased a training center near Ocala where he breeds horses. Sierra owns 70 to 80 horses, which race in Louisiana, New Jersey and Calder Race Course, where Arias trains his stable.
"When I met Juan, what intrigued me the most was that he not only trains but he gets on his horses. I thought that had to be a great advantage," Sierra said. "Besides that, Juan is a great person and I consider him my personal friend. We have a good relationship. I love having Juan as my trainer. He just makes my experience owning horses very enjoyable."
California-based COMMA TO THE TOP (Bwana Charlie), who many feel may carve out the pace in Derby 137, was out even before the crack of dawn Thursday morning at Churchill for a jog of two miles under trainer and sometimes exercise rider Peter Miller. The duo hit the track right when it first opened at 5:45 a.m.
"He was a little anxious here (Wednesday) waiting around until 8:30 (when there is a designated open-track period of 15 minutes for Derby and Kentucky Oaks horses)," Miller said. "So I decided not to wait today. We went out there early, took care of our business and now he can relax for the rest of the day."
Comma to the Top had been flown from his Southern California headquarters to Louisville, Kentucky, on Tuesday and got his first bit of exercise in Kentucky on Wednesday. Saturday, he'll break from post position 6 in the 20-horse lineup and be handled by veteran Patrick Valenzuela, who has a reputation as one of the best "gate riders" in the country.
"I'm going to paddock-school him today and we'll likely go tomorrow, too," Miller said.
WATCH ME GO (West Acre) looked the picture of health, his dappled coat glistening in the morning sun, while grazing behind Barn 41 Thursday morning at Churchill.
"It's just great that he's peaking at this point in time -- which is what you want to see. He's maintained his flesh during the campaign and his coat does look great," said trainer Kathleen O'Connell, whose Derby entrant galloped 1 1/2 miles Thursday.
Watch Me Go, who'll be ridden by Rafael Bejarano, drew the outside post position 20 on Wednesday.
"I'm so happy we didn't get the one hole. I kept saying, 'I hope I don't get the one hole,' so we got the 20," O'Connell said. "But Rafael is really happy with it. He says he'll be able to get a view and see what's going on. I would rather be in the 20 hole than even the six inside posts."