Tom Pedulla is interviewing prominent owners, trainers and jockeys for America’s Best Racing as they travel the Road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on Saturday, May 4, at Churchill Downs.
In the latest installment, he speaks to William “Jinks” Fires, 78, who trains speedy 3-year-old Gray Attempt. The colt has 10 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby and will need to finish first or second in the $1 million Arkansas Derby on Saturday at Oaklawn Park to ensure a place in the field for the run for the roses.
The Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, run at a mile and an eighth, is the last of 15 races in the Kentucky Derby Championship Series and offers qualifying points to the top four finishers on a 100-40-20-10 basis.
Gray Attempt made a winning 3-year-old debut in the one-mile Smarty Jones Stakes on Jan. 25 at Oaklawn. He sustained a hind end injury during a troubled trip when he finished 11th in the Southwest Stakes on Feb. 18, forcing him to miss competing in either of two divisions of the Rebel Stakes on March 16.
The youngster returned to the Derby trail after he controlled the $125,000 Gazebo Stakes at Oaklawn by 3 ¼ lengths and blazed six furlongs in 1:09.72 on March 23. Fires is hoping to saddle his second Kentucky Derby starter. He had high hopes for Archarcharch after that sophomore won the Arkansas Derby in 2011. Archarcharch was injured during the Kentucky Derby, however, and finished 15th.
PEDULLA: What happened to Gray Attempt in the Southwest Stakes?
FIRES: He twisted his back. I’ve always described it as a wide receiver going out and he’s about ready to catch the ball and somebody blindsides him. That’s kind of what happened to us.
PEDULLA: That took you off the Derby trail for a while, didn’t it?
FIRES: Yeah, because he came back lame. He was off in the back end and the front end. It wasn’t good, I’ll tell you that. I was pretty upset about it, and with good reason. He missed like 2 ½ weeks of training.
PEDULLA: When he won the Gazebo Stakes, that convinced you to take a crack at the Arkansas Derby?
FIRES: It did, but also the owner (Dwight Pruett) really wanted to run in it and I agree with him. I think it’s a good choice. Let’s see what happens. He’s a tough little horse.
PEDULLA: Can he handle the mile and an eighth of the Arkansas Derby?
FIRES: If he’s in perfect shape, he’ll get it and we’re working on trying to get him there.
PEDULLA: Can you talk about Archarcharch, who won the Arkansas Derby for you but struggled in the Kentucky Derby?
FIRES: He was meant to win it. Unfortunately, we had some bad luck (with an injury). I felt like I led the best horse over there that day.
PEDULLA: Does Gray Attempt remind you at all of Archarcharch?
FIRES: Both are very competitive. Both of them are nice to work with. They’ve got a good mind in the stall and out. Both knew what their job was and went out to do it.
PEDULLA: Did that first Derby starter make you hungry to get back there?
FIRES: Yes, it did. I always said I wanted to bring a horse over there thinking I had a shot to win it. I didn’t want to just run a horse in the Derby.
PEDULLA: How do you think Gray Attempt will perform on Saturday?
FIRES: I think he will hit the board. I think he has a big shot of doing it.
PEDULLA: Do you know how much longer you would like to train?
FIRES: When I feel I’m not doing a good job, I’ll throw in the towel.