The energetic white horse Hansen commands attention.
Dr. Kendall Hansen, for better or worse, commands attention.
A study in contrast, the most colorful barn at Churchill Downs this week houses a horse with no color and a trainer, Mike Maker, who commands barely any attention but understands that part of the job is to patiently tolerate it.
No matter what happens on Saturday, the 138th Kentucky Derby will always be defined to some degree by Hansen’s presence, in spite of his trainer’s taciturn nature and the fact that this is one of the deepest fields in a long time.
Dr. Hansen, the flamboyant majority owner who named his horse after himself and has attempted several spotlight-grabbing stunts, has had a sometimes uneasy working relationship with Maker, a former assistant to Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas whose “strength is he’s not Tom Cruise,” Lukas said on Thursday.
The horse, meanwhile, won the 2-year-old championship last year after beating Union Rags in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill and is 10-1 on the morning line. Technically still a gray like his father, Tapit, who was ninth in the 2004 Derby, Hansen will break from what could be a favorable post No. 14, outside of expected pace-setters Bodemeister and Trinniberg.
“I think Trinniberg, coming off that sprint, is going to be the speed of the speed,” Maker said, echoing what appears to be the one given in this mishmash of a field. “Stranger things have happened, but we won’t handcuff him early. Whatever happens out of the gate, we’ll leave it up to Ramon [Dominguez].
“Obviously, on paper, Trinniberg and Bodemeister will be sitting there, and hopefully, we’ll be sitting behind them.”
The 43-year-old Maker, whose resume includes another Breeders’ Cup win, with Furthest Land in the 2009 Dirt Mile, has been content to remove himself from the circus created by Dr. Hansen.
Hansen promised to dye his colt’s tail and mane blue to reflect the colors of his silks for the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, only to be rebuffed by New York Racing Association stewards.
He chose to run in the Blue Grass the following weekend, where Hansen finished second to Dullahan, only the second defeat of his career.
In what became known as Tailgate, Hansen had the colt’s tail dyed blue, was told that the Keeneland stewards could scratch him for having an altered appearance and removed the dye.
He showed up in the paddock his usual white self, chaperoned by three women in blue pumps and white dresses with bushy blue horsetails attached to the appropriate location.
“I don’t like the way it was portrayed, like I’m some crazy owner who is not working together with my trainer,” Dr. Hansen said in a Lexington Leader-Herald story after the race.
From a personality standpoint, Hansen and Maker, who leads Derby week in genial monosyllabic interview answers, appear to be an odd couple, but Maker said he enjoys working for Hansen, and having a horse like this certainly helps.
“He’s good. He lets you do your job, and we have a lot of fun,” Maker said. “We have a lot of fun, all of us, together. We had a few minutes of pain, but I’m sure everybody’s family had an argument a time or two.”
Maker was born in Garden City, Mich., outside of Detroit, and is the son of a trainer, George Maker.
With Optimizer making the Derby field upon Mark Valeski dropping out of consideration, Lukas will saddle his record 45th Derby starter.
Among Lukas’ Derby runners who enjoyed Maker’s meticulous care were Thunder Gulch, Tabasco Cat and Charismatic.
“He’s not going to be charismatic and everything — he was involved with that horse, by the way — but he’s an excellent horseman and a very, very strong detail man,” Lukas said. “Very devoted. You’d be surprised how much time, individually, he’ll sit with a horse.”
In the 1990s, the Lukas barn begat what is now an all-star team of head trainers, two more of which, Todd Pletcher and Kiaran McLaughlin, also have horses in the Derby on Saturday.
Maker made his impression by not making an impression, at least when it came to dealing with people. The horses, that was a different story.
“Initially, when he was here, he was second in command behind Dallas Stewart,” Lukas said. “I pulled Dallas into the tack room office there, and I said, ‘What are we going to do with this one? He hasn’t said two things in three days. He has no communication skills, what the hell are we going to do with him?’ Dallas said, ‘Aw, he’s good, you’re going to like him, boss.’ And he was dead right.”
If Maker was going to make it as a head trainer, he needed to become more receptive to owners, Lukas said.
Still, he shakes his head when he looks at the adjoining barn, where the no-nonsense Maker represents the horse of Tailgate notoriety.
“I think Mike’s dealing with that, let’s put it that way,” Lukas said. “Because that’s not Mike’s style at all. But we . . . bend to the wishes of our clientele, all of us, as trainers. He’s gotten better at it. He’s still not going to do the Bill Gates convention, but he was with me a long time, and he’s holding that skill a little bit better.”
The Hansen camp was a big part of the drama when post positions were drawn on Wednesday.
With No. 14 and the dreaded No. 1 left, Hansen drew 14, leading to an outpouring of relief from
Dr. Hansen and the rest of the owners.
“I was thinking, man, these doctors to my left, I might have to give mouth-to-mouth, and I’m not going to do it. I’m not qualified,” Maker said, laughing.
Other than getting a little aggressive during his Thursday gallop when he inadvertantly got hooked up with Take Charge Indy, Hansen has been doing everything right in training.
Maker shrugged off the glitch in the work. Hansen loves his job, Maker said.
While Maker stood against Barn 42 surrounded by a ring of reporters, Hansen got his bath surrounded by a much bigger circle and soaked up the hose water and the attention in equal parts.
“He’ll pose for cameras and things of that nature . . . I guess he likes it more than I do,” he said with a grin.
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