In Barn A at smoldering San Luis Rey Downs on Dec. 7, the Kentucky Derby dream of Adam Kitchingman stood in his stall at the training facility bathed in smoke — an island of fragile safety at a place where 46 horses lost their lives.
Greyvitos, already a winner in Del Mar’s Bob Hope Stakes, was prepping for the Springboard Mile in Oklahoma City and a chance to position himself for the first Saturday in May.
By the time Kitchingman navigated the maze of closed roads and police barricades, he found a scene that reminded him of a “war zone.” He also found Greyvitos, unburned and unbowed.
The blaze crept to within two barns.
“It was close enough to be worried, that’s for sure,” Kitchingman said.
That’s another piece of the fallout from the Lilac Fire’s smudged fingerprint on San Luis Rey. The deadly mid-day march threatened racing futures, along with lives. Few if any had more to lose on the track than Greyvitos.
Ten days after the fire, the colt roared from the outside post position to win the $400,000 Springboard by 2¼ lengths at Remington Park. Greyvitos picked up 10 points in the Road to the Kentucky Derby standings, leaping onto lists of West Coast favorites to climb into the gate for the sport’s unequaled gem.
That’s when Kitchingman felt some heat and pressure in one of his prized horse’s knees. X-rays revealed small bone chips in both of Greyvitos’ front knees. Minor surgery followed.
“He already had colic surgery as a yearling, survived the fire, has been shipped around and then two knee surgeries,” Kitchingman said. “He’s either the luckiest horse in the world or the unluckiest horse in the world.”
For now, Greyvitos is being walked next to his Del Mar barn for about an hour a day. He strained against his reins Thursday, Jan. 4, eager to do more than his careful rehabilitation schedule allows.
That’s the signature attitude Kitchingman has witnessed since the horse was purchased for $100,000 at the famed Keeneland Sale.
“He probably thinks his name is ‘Stop It’ because he kept biting everybody,” joked Kitchingman, 43. “He’s definitely a tough horse.”
Kitchingman began working with thoroughbreds when he was around 21 in his native Australia, near Melbourne. To best explain where he’s from, he leans on a cinematic map point.
“You know the movie, ‘The Man from Snowy River?’ ” he quizzed, as Greyvitos continued his daily walk. “I grew up where it was filmed.”
The road to the Kentucky Derby has been long — in miles as much as years. Kitchingman understands how rare these opportunities can be, particularly for trainers running smaller operations who claw away in hopes that racing’s stubborn planets will align.
And just when they do, a pair of giant what-ifs are tossed in the path.
What if those knees can’t heal properly and in time? What if Greyvitos bounces back, but can’t pile up enough Derby points in the sole remaining shot he’ll have — either the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park or the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 14, the final day to qualify?
The Arkansas Derby dangles more points — 100 for first, followed by 40, 20 and 10 — but also offers the stiffer competition that comes along with that type of bounty. He’s leaning toward the more manageable field at the Lexington, where 20 points go to the winner.
Cross the line first in Kentucky and Greyvitos would rise to 30 points, which is likely to flirt with the Derby cut line.
One race. One shot.
“Literally, I need everything to go perfect,” Kitchingman said. “And in horse racing, nothing ever seems to go perfect. It’s definitely a setback, but it’s not over yet.”
So, Kitchingman faces the long odds realistically.
“Right now, I feel confident about how he looks,” Kitchingman said. “But I’ve been in the business long enough to know how tough it is. For a small trainer … we just don’t get the opportunities like the big boys. I don’t want to get my hopes up.”
The trainer promised not to cave to the pressure of a rare window.
“I’m not going to push him just to make it,” he said. “It’s going to be up to the horse. I’m not going to push him for the sake of my ego.”
So much went up in smoke Dec. 7 at San Luis Rey. One thing that didn’t: Kitchingman’s Derby dream.
--Bryce Miller is a sports columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune