The Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May – or, as it turns out in 2020, the first Saturday in September – is the Super Bowl of American Thoroughbred racing. Every trainer and jockey in the sport dreams, however casually, of giving or getting a leg up to answer the call to the post for the classic race.
“Everybody thinks about it,” said Greg Foley, who grew up thinking about it in a racing family in Oldham County, Ky. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and it’s the first time I’ve got one to lead over there. You always hope you’ve got a young horse coming in that can do it, but it’s dodged me up till now.”
Foley, who will lead over Major Fed on Saturday, grew up just outside the Derby city of Louisville. But the Run for the Roses ties together all worlds. The five trainers and three jockeys who take their first Derby shots this year have converged on Kentucky from Barbados, England, Guatemala, Italy, the United States, and Venezuela.
“This is the dream for every jockey in my country – to ride in the United States,” said Venezuela’s Samy Camacho, who will be aboard King Guillermo in the Derby. “This is the MLB of racing. When you’re here, that’s your dream – to ride the big races and ride in the Kentucky Derby. That was my dream.”
Since the turn of the century, eight trainers have won the Kentucky Derby in their first attempt at the race. They are Neil Drysdale with Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000; Barclay Tagg with Funny Cide in 2003; John Servis with Smarty Jones in 2004; John Shirreffs with Giacomo in 2005; Michael Matz with Barbaro in 2006; Rick Dutrow with Big Brown in 2008; Chip Woolley with Mine That Bird in 2009; and Art Sherman with California Chrome in 2014. First-time Derby jockey Stewart Elliott teamed up with Servis to win, and Mario Gutierrez also won the Derby as a first-time rider, piloting I’ll Have Another in 2012.
And although many of this year’s first-timers are involved with longshots, they know that anything can happen in the Kentucky Derby.
Juan Carlos Avila – Trainer, King Guillermo:
Avila trained undefeated Venezuelan champion sprinter Pedro Caiman, and also saddled a pair of winners of the prestigious Group 1 Clasico del Caribe, El de Chine and Ninfa del Cielo.
Avila worked his way up the ranks as a hotwalker and groom and also did a stint as an assistant starter before becoming a trainer. After winning 12 group stakes during his 30-year Venezuelan training career, he emigrated to America in 2018 and is based in Florida. He trains King Guillermo for retired Major League Baseball all-star Victor Martinez, also a Venezuelan native.
Adam Beschizza – Jockey, Enforceable:
Beschizza won 22 stakes in the U.S., including the Grade 3 Bewitch and Grade 3 Mint Julep with Mom’s On Strike, the Grade 3 American Derby with Faraway Kitten, and the Grade 3 Arlington Handicap with Bandua.
Growing up in Newmarket, Beschizza was aware of the allure of the Derby and other major international events contested in North America.
“I’ve always been really keen on American horse racing, ever since I was a kid, just with the Breeders’ Cup being so huge back home,” he said.
Beschizza will be aboard Enforceable for the first time in the Kentucky Derby. Enforceable is trained by Mark Casse and assistant David Carroll.
“I got a call a couple of weeks ago from Casse and David Carroll, and they said, ‘Congratulations, you’ve got a ride in the Kentucky Derby. Go win it!’ It’s huge, and I’m very blessed for the opportunity.”
Samy Camacho – Jockey, King Guillermo:
Camacho won his first graded stakes this year, taking the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby with King Guillermo and Grade 3 Tampa Bay Stakes with Admirality Pier, both at Tampa Bay Downs.
Like Avila and Martinez, Camacho is a native of Venezuela. They will team up 49 years after Venezuelan-owned, -trained, and -ridden Canonero II won the 1971 Derby and Preakness.
Camacho sought out the ride on King Guillermo this year after reviewing replays of him as a juvenile, and his research has paid off with his first Derby mount.
Greg Foley – Trainer, Major Fed:
Foley would be winning his first Grade 1 race in the Kentucky Derby. Among his best horses has been millionaire Champali, winner of four graded stakes and four other stakes races.
Foley learned his craft from his father, the late Dravo Foley. Both Greg and sister Vickie Foley are Churchill Downs-based trainers. Another generation has followed, as Greg’s son Travis works as his assistant.
“It makes it that much more special for me, with Travis and even my youngest boy Alex, and Vickie, we’re kind of grouped together over there,” Greg Foley said, referring to he and his sister’s adjacent barns at Churchill. “And my wife, Sheree, she’s our biggest cheerleader. All of them here watching it. They’re really excited. Not that I’m not, but it makes it that much more fun.”
As a veteran observer of the Kentucky Derby while based at Churchill Downs, Foley is in a solid position to compare this year’s pandemic-delayed and crowd-less Derby to prior editions.
“It doesn’t feel like Derby, especially when it’s moved from May to September, and no people,” he said. “You’re getting this close to Derby, you get that buzz in the spring ... everyone wants to be out that week before the Derby. You’re not gonna have that this year. It’s quiet. They’ve got it locked down pretty hard. It’s definitely different, and that takes something away from it, also. It’s an odd year, for sure.”
Chris Hartman – Trainer, Necker Island:
Hartman would be winning his first Grade 1 race in the Kentucky Derby. Among his best horses has been millionaire Alsvid, winner of three graded stakes and eight additional stakes races.
Hartman claimed Necker Island for $100,000 on behalf of an ownership partnership in June, in pursuit of co-owner Wayne Scherr’s “bucket list” wish of starting a horse in the Kentucky Derby. Seeking points to make the starting gate, he then sent the colt out to finish third in the Grade 3 Indiana Derby and third in the Runhappy Ellis Park Derby.
“It was a two-race deal to see if he was going to be able to get the points to get into the Derby,” Hartman said. “And as it works out, it appears that maybe you’re gonna have a horse that’s gonna start with no points. But we didn’t know that at the time.
“He actually ran a really good race in the Indiana Derby. He stumbled out of the gate and had a lot of trouble. The Ellis race, he just got outran. But the Indiana Derby, he ran a hell of a race. The Ellis Derby, he ran a good race, but he just ran third. So now, here we go. We’re going forward to the Derby and Wayne’s gonna get his bucket list ticked off, and the partners are super excited.”
Rey Hernandez – Trainer, Finnick the Fierce:
Hernandez would be winning his first graded stakes race in the Kentucky Derby with Grade 2-placed Finnick the Fierce.
Hernandez, a former jockey and exercise rider, worked for Elliott Walden and WinStar Farm and is now based at the Thoroughbred Training Center. He broke Finnick the Fierce as a yearling, and liked him so much he acquired a half-interest in him from his owner, veterinarian Arnaldo Monge.
Hernandez has remained hands-on with his star gelding, who lost an eye as a foal, and gets on him for morning training.
“He’s a really good horse to get along with,” Hernandez said. “He does everything you ask him to do.”
Saffie Joseph Jr. – Trainer, Ny Traffic:
Joseph trained 2009 Barbados Triple Crown winner Areyoutalkintome. He won his first Grade 1 in the U.S. with Math Wizard in the 2019 Pennsylvania Derby .
Joseph, the son of a trainer, found success in his native Barbados before he began training in South Florida in 2011. His horses are developing penchants for close finishes. Math Wizard upset last fall’s Pennsylvania Derby by a neck. Ny Traffic was bested only a nose by Authentic after a late surge in the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational, which still left his trainer beaming.
“That was a tough beat, but to be honest, it really didn’t hurt that much because I am just so proud of this horse,” Joseph said.
Luca Panici – Jockey, Sole Volante:
Panici owns two graded stakes wins in the U.S., taking the Grade 3 Azalea on Another Romance in 2012 and the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis on Sole Volante this year.
The son of a jockey, Panici grew up playing soccer with Frankie Dettori down the street from a local racetrack. Dettori, four years older than Panici, then inspired the younger rider by becoming an international superstar.
Panici rode more than 500 winners in Europe while sporadically traveling to Florida to ride, and made a permanent move to the U.S. in 2009.
A decade later, he began working with the juvenile Sole Volante for trainer Patrick Biancone. He has been deeply involved in the development of the colt, who works and races on both dirt and turf.
“When you work with a baby, you think always maybe they can take you to the Derby,” Panici said. “Finally, this is the time.”