Horse Trainer's Kentucky Derby Hopes Tom McCarthy is a former high-school principal and science teacher who's also been involved in training horses for the Kentucky Derby. This year is the first time he will have a horse running for the roses.
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Horse Trainer's Kentucky Derby Hopes

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Horse Trainer's Kentucky Derby Hopes

Horse Trainer's Kentucky Derby Hopes

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

Tom McCarthy is a retired high school principal who's owned and trained thoroughbred race horses over the last 50 years. He's had some success. He's had horses finish in the money, but he's never gotten a horse into the Kentucky Derby. The only way he could get into the derby was to go to Churchill Downs from his Louisville home and buy a ticket.

Well, he won't have to do that this year. When the starting gates for this year's derby spring open at 6:04 p.m. Eastern Time today, Tom McCarthy will have his eyes fixed on General Quarters. That's his three-year-old colt that he's lovingly trained by himself.

And Tom McCarthy joins us from his home in Louisville.

Welcome to the program, sir, and I guess congratulations.

Mr. TOM McCARTHY (Owner, General Quarters): Thank you very much.

GREENE: So when the racing odds were first announced earlier this week, General Quarters was listed at somewhere around 20-1. Do you think he's being underestimated?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCARTHY: Yes, I certainly do. You know, he was first in the Blue Grass Stakes, grade one stakes. He won the Sam Davis and broke the stake's record. Everybody seems to have bypassed him no matter what he's done here, and I think he'll rectify that in the derby.

GREENE: We'll see if what you say here is going to start moving the odds as we get closer to post time. I mean you do have a lot of tough competition out there though, these other 19 horses in the derby. I mean who do you think is going to be toughest for your horse?

Mr. McCARTHY: Well, I'll tell you what. Many of the sportswriters have said this is one of the best derbies in 20 years, that there's about 10 horses in there you could actually make a case for. I can't remember so many good horses in one race in a long time. But I think General Quarters is just as good, you know, as those 10.

GREENE: Well, tell me how you came to own this three-year-old colt?

Mr. McCARTHY: I claimed him out of a claiming race as a two-year-old in his first start, which he won.

GREENE: The claiming price, $20,000, it sounds like it was a bargain for you.

Mr. McCARTHY: It was.

GREENE: I mean how much has he earned in his racing career?

Mr. McCARTHY: Oh, I tell you what, I think its 561,000.

GREENE: Not bad.


(Soundbite of laughter)


GREENE: What's the secret to the success here? I mean anything unusual about your training regimen?

Mr. McCARTHY: No, I don't think so. I just gave him the time after I got him. I had a couple yearlings here on the farm and I needed something for the spring. The name General Quarters didn't mean anything to me, but I looked at his breeding, and I said, hey, I know that breeding, I've seen it before. And I went back to my catalogs and I said, well, you know, this might be a nice situation. He looked so nice. He matured very well. And evidently he was a pretty nice horse at that time.

GREENE: Well, compare your training to other horses and other trainers. You do a lot of the work by yourself. Is that right?

Mr. McCARTHY: That's correct. But I've always done most of my work. You know, small trainer with three or four horses. And here of late I've just, you know, gotten down to one or two where I can take the time and do my own work. And I enjoy it. I like to do them up. I like to groom them. I like to do everything there is to do, because then I know it's done right, or else I feel that way that it's done right. Yes.

GREENE: I wanted to ask you. I read a story in The New York Times about a lot of trainers not wanting to talk about the legal medications that they're using on their horses, and a lot of veterinarians are very concerned about this. Let me ask you. A lot of these medications have to be expensive. I mean if they're in large use, does that put a smalltime trainer, like yourself, in a tougher spot? I mean does it ever skew the playing field when other trainers are able to, you know, try to come up with the right recipes and medications to make a horse perform?

Mr. McCARTHY: Well, you know, I don't think you can do that anymore. You might've been able to do that years ago, I'm sure. But you know, the tests are so extensive today and it's so technical, I would be very surprised if somebody could use something and actually get away with it today. Racing is really on the up-and-up now, more so than it has ever been, and I think the whole thing is policed very, very well here lately.

GREENE: So what you're often doing is, or used to be doing, was teaching in high school. You're a former science teacher and a retired high school principal?

Mr. McCARTHY: Yes.

GREENE: And what's been the reaction, like at your former school, to this derby appearance?

Mr. McCARTHY: Some of the past students, I've gotten many notes and many letters from them. I think we got just a little over a hundred or so, and everybody seems quite positive about him.

GREENE: And are they all, are they planning derby watching parties that they're telling you about in some of those notes?

Mr. McCARTHY: Oh, yes. You know, Louisville, everybody in Louisville has a derby party if they don't go to the race track. You just have to be a Louisvillian to really understand the situation. You know, it's just one thing that the entire city does.

GREENE: And so what are your plans for General Quarters after the derby's done? I mean you're going to run him in the other two legs of the Triple Crown?

Mr. McCARTHY: Well, you know, that's a good question for the simple reason I won't know until the race is over. But if he does well and finishes in the money, we will probably go up to the next race.

GREENE: We've been talking to Tom McCarthy. He's the owner and trainer of General Quarters, one of 20 horses who'll be competing today in the 135th running of the Kentucky Derby.

Tom, thanks for joining us.

Mr. McCARTHY: Okay. Thank you very much.

GREENE: And if you know all of those famous opulent hats from the Kentucky Derby, you can check our photos of them at

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