Ever since It'sallinthechase ran in the 2002 Kentucky Derby, Darwin Olson's friends have anticipated a return trip to Louisville. "They always say, 'Do you have a horse in the Derby this year?" said Olson, who lives in Lake City. "I tell them it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Maybe we'll get there again, but it's very unlikely."
Which is exactly why 20 horses, a full field, are expected to be entered Wednesday for the 134th Derby at Churchill Downs. As always, there will be a handful of first-time trainers and owners competing against the bluegrass billionaires and celebrity horsemen. And as always, some will scoff at a few horses they deem unworthy -- forgetting that commoners, as well as the crowned, have every right to pursue the pinnacle of the Sport of Kings.
Olson and trainer Wilson Brown knew they had a long shot in 2002. It'sallinthechase went off at odds of 95-1, the longest in the field, and finished 16th among 18 horses.
When they think about their Derby experience, though, they remember the parties, the pride, the sheer magic of the week that culminated in the greatest two minutes of their racing lives.
"We were just a couple of country bumpkins who got the opportunity to do this," said Olson, who owns an insurance agency with offices in southern Minnesota. "I'm sure there were people who thought we didn't belong, but nobody said it. Even though we were a long shot, we felt extremely welcome.
"We always had that hope of making the Derby, just like everyone who's ever owned a thoroughbred. We decided this was our one chance. To see the gates open, to think, 'Those are my colors out there,' it was just fantastic."
Brown spotted It'sallinthechase at a Texas sale in 2001. He was immediately taken by the long-striding bay, but Olson got nervous when the auction bidding hit $25,000 -- a pittance for a Derby horse, but a significant investment for him. Brown cajoled him into upping the ante, and Olson got the colt for $27,000.
It'sallinthechase started his racing career at Shakopee's Canterbury Park. He failed to win in three starts there but ran second in the Arlington Washington Futurity, which pushed the little group to think big. That fall, Darwin and Barb Olson and Wilson and Brenda Brown made their first trip to New York City to run the colt in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
The horse finished 10th in a field of 12, but he ran well enough in the spring to crack the top 20 in purse earnings among 3-year-olds and earn his way into the Derby field. Olson received offers to sell the colt, but he wasn't about to let someone else see his dream through.
"I had been in this a long time," he said. "I wanted one opportunity [in the Derby], and I knew this was it. It may not have been the best financial decision I ever made, but it was worth it."
Brown, the Okie with the cowboy hat and the down-home drawl, and Olson, the humble Midwesterner, represented the Everyman faction that Derby week. Such stars as Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas wished them luck. Reporters gathered at their barn every morning to record Brown's tales of riding bulls at the red-dirt rodeos in Cement, Okla.
"You can't believe how they treat you," Brown said. "We were so wore out from all the parties and entertainment that we went to bed at 6 o'clock the night before the Derby.
"They give every trainer a brand-new pickup for the week with a plaque on it that says, 'Kentucky Derby Trainer.' And when you walk around the track to the paddock before the race, there was such a roar, you felt like you were elevated off the ground. I'm sure I'll never feel anything like that again."
It'sallinthechase injured a foot after the Derby and was retired later that year. He now stands at stud, and Olson --who still owns a half-interest in the horse -- is considering buying one of the offspring.
Olson will watch this year's Derby at Canterbury Park, which opens its racing season Saturday. Brown will turn his stable over to an assistant for the day so he can watch on TV at his home. Both of them remain grateful that the racing gods granted them their chance at the roses -- and hopeful it might happen again.
"I know guys who train horses just as good as me, but they never got the luck," Brown said. "That's a big part of it. Maybe we got our only shot. But Darwin and I are always buying yearlings, always hoping we might find another one."
Rachel Blount • email@example.com