George Weaver couldn’t help feeling nostalgic last week while driving across the Central Avenue bridge to Churchill Downs.
The Louisville native saw his first Kentucky Derby here at age 9, which helped stoke an early calling toward training horses. Weaver is now seeing that childhood dream come full circle as a first-time Derby trainer, the reality of which hit him as the track came into view.
”That brought back a lot of memories,” Weaver said while standing in front of the same Barn 42 that housed 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat. ”You get the little goose bumps. … Here I am (and) here we are.
”When you get to training horses, having a horse run in the Derby and one that you feel has a shot to win it, it is kind of a dream come true.”
Whether Tencendur and jockey Manny Franco provide a happy ending for Weaver and owner Philip S. Birsh on Saturday depends on how the 3-year-old colt handles 19 other contenders over 1-1/4 miles. The full field includes five combined entrants between Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas and Todd Pletcher, not to mention Bob Baffert’s formidable duo of American Pharoah and Dortmund.
Squaring off against Lukas and Pletcher is somewhat fitting for Weaver, one of five trainers making Derby debuts along with Mike de Kock, Ron Moquett, Simon Callaghan and Carla Gaines. Weaver started in high school as a hot walker with John Hennig before learning his craft under those Lukas and Pletcher and eventually opening his own stable in 2002.
Weaver, 44, feels fortunate to be facing his mentors in racing’s marquee event.
”There’s definitely something to be said for horsemanship,” Weaver said. ”Some people have it and some people don’t as far as the relationship with a horse and understanding what makes them tick and how to turn them into race horses.
”That element is something, being around Wayne and Todd, I got lucky to be exposed to what goes into it.”
With Lukas, Weaver helped groom Derby winners with Thunder Gulch and Grindstone before joining Pletcher and helping him develop multiple stakes-winning horses.
New York-bred Tencendur enters the Derby with a first, second and third in five starts and stands 15th with 41 points. That makes him something of a longshot, though Weaver hints that anything can happen.
Neither Lukas nor Pletcher is shocked to see Weaver here with a contender.
”He was outstanding. He was a good man,” Lukas recalled of Weaver’s time as a foreman and assistant in the early 1990s. ”The work ethic, that’s the thing in this barn, and the discipline and attention to detail.”
Weaver then worked six years with Pletcher, who added that he ”does a good job, he’s a good trainer. I’m not at all surprised he’s going to start (a horse) in the Derby.”
Least surprised is Weaver’s father, Bill.
He took his infant son to tracks here and in New York and taught him how to read the Daily Racing Form a few years later. George was soon judging horses on his own and this career after stints at Centre College and Louisville.
”He knew what he wanted to do when he was 14 years old,” 73-year-old Bill said of his son. ”George caught on really fast. I’m thrilled to death that he’s here, but who wouldn’t be?”
Weaver’s results are certainly worth getting excited about. His horses have finished first, second or third in 1,572 of 3,662 starts with 549 victories entering Tuesday.
The resume boasts 10 graded stakes wins including last year’s Grade 3 Gulfstream Park Sprint Stakes with Falling Sky. Tencendur finished five lengths behind Wood Memorial winner Frosted last month, but those 40 second-place points were enough to get him into the Derby field.
No matter how it ends, Tencendur has given Weaver the homecoming he always hoped for.
”Sometimes you get lucky,” Weaver said. ”There’s a lot of talk about the trainer, the owner, the jockey, but without the horse you can’t do it.”