LOUISVILLE — In the grand scheme, a sporting event can only impart so much change in a person's world. While this year's Kentucky Derby will not cure the ills that plague trainer Jose Garoffalo's native Venezuela, the journey of his charge Wildcat Red has been a welcome salve for a country in strife.
Garoffalo has been one of the more sunny presences on the Churchill Downs backstretch this week as he prepares Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes winner Wildcat Red for his run in the first leg of the Triple Crown.
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While Garoffalo good-naturedly fields questions about whether the colt who has never finished worse than second in seven starts can last the 10-furlong distance, he is serious when discussing the impact Wildcat Red's success has had at a time when Venezuela is dealing with extreme political unrest.
"It's very important because we are struggling now with a lot of problems, the economy and violence there," Garoffalo said. "In my country we have fanatics for horse racing. They follow this horse like he is a baseball star.
"It's good for the country because they're going to have something different to see in the news, some good news among all that bad news."
Front-running Wildcat Red was beaten only a neck by Constitution in the Grade I Florida Derby going 11⁄8 miles. While some still dismiss Wildcat Red as a sprinter, Garoffalo has focused on long, stamina-building gallops in his training.
"The horse has changed. Before when he had those bullet works, the horse was very anxious, he was very immature," Garoffalo said. "Now the horse can relax and go steady for more distance. So I'm not worried about that."
Owner Chip McEwen is taking it upon himself to do right by those who make the ultimate sacrifice.
When Uncle Sigh goes to post in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, he will carry the colors of McEwen's Wounded Warrior Stables — an outfit that donates 10 percent of all of its horses' earnings to various charities that aid wounded veterans.
McEwen was moved to support war veterans after he and his wife witnessed a 27-year-old veteran with head trauma being aided as they flew back from a trade show two years ago.
"The only reason they're over there doing that is they are fighting for our freedom. Right then I decided I wanted to do something," McEwen said. "They're just forgotten, no one thinks about them. That's when we decided we would start giving 10 percent of the money."
McEwen is planning to have several wounded veterans with him at the Derby on Saturday. After Fox Hill Farms owner Rick Porter said Churchill Downs did not initially provide tickets for the World War II veterans he brought to last year's Derby, McEwen took it upon himself to make sure those needs were met.
"I couldn't count on Churchill to do any of that," McEwen said. "Mike Penna of Horse Racing Radio Network was kind enough to donate his box to me for them. So six of them will be sitting in that box and another 3-4 in different boxes I bought."
Wicked Strong blows out 3 furlongs
Grade I Wood Memorial winner Wicked Strong had his final pre-Derby move Thursday, blowing out 3 furlongs in 36:60 seconds.
Wicked Strong moved well through the lane under exercise rider Kelvin Pahal but appeared to take an awkward step coming off the turn. Trainer Jimmy Jerkens, who was on the backside for the work, said the bobble was likely the result of Pahal trying to restrain the colt from doing too much on the gallop-out.
"I was telling him not to let him do too much afterwards and he might have looked like he bobbled a little bit because he was trying to get him back," Jerkens said. "But from all accounts it looked like (the work) was good."