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Horse delivers trainer to Churchill Downs

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Published:   |   Updated: March 22, 2013 at 04:58 PM

It's a Kentucky Derby fairy tale - part Seabiscuit, part hometown pride, part vindication.

And all true.

After a lifetime in the shadows, a bit player in his sport, Thomas McCarthy, finally has the spotlight. He has attended every Kentucky Derby for the past half century, always watching from the grandstand, resigned to the probability that he never would participate in horse racing's greatest event.

Now it has happened.

"When they play 'My Old Kentucky Home' and the time arrives, it's going to be tough not to have a little lump in the throat," McCarthy, 75, a retired Louisville, Ken., high school principal and biology teacher, said by telephone.

General Quarters, the only horse McCarthy trains and owns, has qualified for Saturday's Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs and opened at 20-to-1. One year ago, McCarthy claimed the colt for $20,000 - a pittance in a sport that has Derby contenders backed by corporations - after once passing on him at a yearling sale.

McCarthy watched the horse's sire, Sky Mesa, win the Futurity at Keeneland. He made a mental note. "I thought I'd like to train one of his babies," he said.

McCarthy spent the winter at Tampa Bay Downs, training General Quarters and preparing for this moment.

"If this story doesn't do your heart good, then you're not alive," said longtime horseman Glenn Wismer, a regular at Tampa Bay Downs who persuaded McCarthy to bring General Quarters to the Oldsmar track. "People have been describing this thing as luck. Oh, sure, you have to be a little bit lucky, but it's a lot more than that."

'Tom has him ready for the moment'

McCarthy walks and bathes General Quarters (although he says a few more volunteer helpers have popped up this week). He had a plan for the horse's development and stuck to it - even when others were skeptical.

"At first he reminded me of one of those big gangling kids who comes out for basketball who doesn't know the left foot from the right," said McCarthy, his voice softening to a father's prideful tone. "But you see something there. You just have to take it slow and let things develop."

General Quarters won the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. McCarthy was fairly devastated when his horse got caught up in traffic and ran fifth in the Tampa Bay Derby. McCarthy never surrendered his belief.

"Tom has gotten him ready the right way," Wismer said. "He knows that horse. That horse is a runner, and Tom has him ready for the moment."

The biggest moment so far has been April 11, when General Quarters, as a 14-to-1 shot, won the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes, holding off favored Hold Me Back by 11/2 lengths to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.

There was McCarthy and his one-horse stable.

And there was Hold Me Back, trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott, ridden by Hall of Famer Kent Desormeaux and owned by WinStar Farm.

"The older you get, the less chances you have," said McCarthy, who briefly left the horse business a few years back after having surgery for prostate cancer. "Everybody wants their horse to go to the Kentucky Derby. When it happened for me, it was almost disbelief, a euphoric feeling.

"But I've got a good horse. That's what really happened here. I love his disposition, his personality, just his heart. When he gets moving, he's like a big train. He's thrilling to watch. This horse won't let you down."

He won the lottery

General Quarters is only part of the Kentucky Derby's Tampa connection. Tampa Bay Downs has produced five Derby starters, a track record, including Musket Man (Tampa Bay Derby winner), John in the Dance (second), Nowhere to Hide (fourth) and Atomic Rain (seventh in the Sam F. Davis Stakes).

General Quarters has gotten most of the attention. Media reports about McCarthy generally have been marked by one phrase.

He won the lottery.

It's meant to describe McCarthy's sudden rise to the Kentucky Derby. But a lottery winner can walk into a supermarket, scratch in some random numbers and win millions.

That doesn't describe the shoe-leather approach of McCarthy, the grandson of an Irish jockey, a man who has been around horses his whole life. McCarthy is well-known in Louisville. For four decades, he has owned an 11-acre farm about 25 minutes from Churchill Downs. When McCarthy taught at Seneca High School, one of the students was Jerry Abramson, now Louisville's mayor.

"There are lots of people rooting for Dad," said McCarthy's son, Tim, a Louisville attorney. "Maybe people can see a lot of themselves in Dad. He's just a good guy, an honest man who has worked hard his whole life. He's at home on the track, working with horses. That's his joy.

"To have this come along - to have Dad's horse in the Kentucky Derby - it's overwhelming. I don't even know how you write a story like this."

If it's a true fairy tale, there's only one way for it to end - with General Quarters draped in roses, with McCarthy in the winner's circle. He won't dream about such a moment, not yet. For now, just getting here is enough.

"A lot has been written and said about my age, about how long I've been around doing this," McCarthy said. "The truth is, General Quarters has made me feel pretty young."


Reporter Joey Johnston can be reached at (813) 259-7353.

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