May 19, 2010


In the beginning there was Graeme Hall. The chestnut son of Dehere was the first three-year-old sent out by trainer Todd Pletcher in quest of Kentucky Derby glory. Twenty-seven more attempts would be made before Todd and his WinStar cohorts would sniff the roses.

Graeme Hall loved a wet track and he got one in no undertain terms while winning the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. Thunder and lightning wracked Hot Springs for hours right up to post-time.

I assumed that we would end up waiting out the storm but owner Eugene Melnyk was in a hurry to return to his home in Barbados. His pilot tried to assure us that it would not be unsafe and we would fly above the storm in a matter of minutes. Todd and I and my friend Diane were to be dropped off in Louisville.

Bad call. The thunder and lightning showed no sign of abating and the private jet bounced through a phenomenon known as St. Elmo's Fire. It felt like we were seated inside a giant firecracker. Prayers to St. Elmo went unanswered as we careened through the sky like an airborne ship of fools.

It turned out that the pilot was right. What seemed an eternity was l0 minutes or so and Eugene was rightfully excited about the great victory.

"On to the Derby," he announced with a great grin of anticipation.

It would have been a good time for me to keep my mouth shut but I guess that is just not my

I suggested that there might be alternatives to racing Graeme Hall in the Kentucky Derby against the likes of favorite Fusiachi Pegasus and More Than Ready, also trained by Pletcher.

Graeme Hall was a light-bodied sort who gave his all when racing and needed plenty of recovery time after a race. He figured to be a big price in the Derby and a hard race might send him to the sidelines and miss the rich summer races.

My advice found a frosty reception. Todd even questioned my reasoning.

"How can you tell a man who won a major prep that his horse doesn't belong in the Kentucky Derby?, he said.

So, off we go to Churchill Downs and Graeme Hall lays an egg, dead last at 46-to-1.

My cell phone rings. It's Eugene and he wants a cover story right away. I call Todd at his barn where he tends to fourth place finisher More Than Ready.

"Your turn," I say to Todd. Next day it's reported that Graeme Hall has "flipped his palate" and that explains his poor effort. Did he really? I didn't ask.
A happy post script to the Derby was the great job Todd performed in getting Graeme Hall to win the Jim Dandy three months later. He had some ankle troubles that kept him out of the Travers.

At four, Todd sent him out to win a Grade 2 stakes and added a Grade 1 second in the Cigar Mile to Pletcher's brilliant but ill-fated Left Bank.

Graeme Hall is now the leading sire in Florida. Imagine what career he may have had if only
he had skipped the Derby.