Norwich, Conn., shares in defeat of General Quarters at Derby

James Mosher

It was an upset all right, but not the one Eastern Connecticut residents were hoping for.

Norwich native Thomas McCarthy’s underdog colt General Quarters succumbed to an even bigger underdog as Mine That Bird won the 135th Kentucky Derby Saturday at 50-to-1 odds. General Quarters finished 10th in the field of 19.

General Quarters got bumped at the start and had mud in his nose early, which finished him for the 11⁄4-mile race, McCarthy said by telephone after leaving Louisville’s Churchill Downs.

“We pulled a wedge of mud the size of a tennis ball out of his right nostril,” said the trainer/owner, a 1952 graduate of Norwich Free Academy. “Once that took hold, he just stopped running.”

McCarthy said he’s “not too keen” on running in the next two legs of the Triple Crown — the May 16 Preakness Stakes and the June 6 Belmont Stakes. He said he’s more likely to race General Quarters at Chicago’s Arlington Park, which has a high-caliber summer meet that includes the Arlington Million. 

Among the 200 gathered at NFA’s Silver Jubilee Reunion on the school campus, several expressed disappointment at the Derby finish, but pride in McCarthy.

“It’s a tough race to win,” said Mary Banas Berzenski, class of ’49. “You can’t win them all.”

“I wish we could have given them more of a thrill,” McCarthy said of the NFA gathering.

McCarthy wrote a letter to the reunion, which honored the classes of 1940 through 1949.

Proud to be alumnus

“It has been 50 years of striving to be counted among trainers of a Derby horse,” McCarthy wrote with the words being spoken to the gathering by alumni relations director Linda Ververis. “Your interest and support means a lot to me. I have always been proud of my status as an alumnus of NFA.”

Owing to his battle with cancer and his hands-on training of his one horse, McCarthy became a media darling after qualifying for the Derby with a win in the Blue Grass Stakes on April 11. The sudden fame combined with General Quarters’ victories on traditional dirt and synthetic tracks caused him to be bet down to 9-to-1 from morning-line odds of 20-to-1.  

McCarthy, 75, was one of six trainers in the Derby for the first time. Another was Musket Man’s Derek Ryan. McCarthy and Ryan share Irish heritage and locked horns in three races at Florida’s Tampa Bay Downs this year with Musket Man winning twice and General Quarters once. Musket Man finished third in Saturday’s Derby.

Mine That Bird trainer Bennie Woolley was another of the six. Walking on crutches and driving his horse in himself from thousands of miles away, Woolley found a way to out-Cinderella McCarthy. McCarthy bought General Quarters on a $20,000 claim, yet Mine That Bird went for only $9,500 as a yearling.

Ironically, General Quarters’ racing and training schedules closely resemble that of 2007 Derby winner Street Sense, who was ridden by Calvin Borel. Borel got Mine That Bird to the winner’s circle Saturday with a powerful inside move reminiscent of Street Sense. This led some to remark McCarthy was right on everything except his choice of jockey.

Tired jockey?

“The jockey (Julien Leparoux) was going all day,” Groton resident Nancy Green, McCarthy’s sister, said by telephone from Louisville. “We think he might have been tired.”  

The race was upset by the morning scratch of favorite I Want Revenge because of ankle inflammation and rain that caused the track to be rated sloppy. Post-time favorite Friesan Fire finished next to last. Yet Mine That Bird’s 63⁄4-length victory was impressive by any standards.

“If it was a dry track I think it would have been a different story,” McCarthy said, “but that’s racing.”  

Mine That Bird’s victory delighted at least one person at NFA. William Mulcahy, class of ’47, won the event’s mock betting, getting a horseshoe made of roses placed around his neck. Mulcahy admitted to not studying the race much.

“I walked up and threw (a ticket) in the first bin I saw,” he said. “Real scientific, eh?”

A McCarthy cousin was at the reunion, pulling for her kin.

“I bet on him $10 to win, $10 to place, and $10 to show,” Shirley Menders Courtney of Uncasville, class of ’47, said before the race. “I’ve been praying for him. He’s just like Seabiscuit.”

Echoes of Seabiscuit

McCarthy’s battle against thoroughbred industry giants evoked memories of the Great Depression-era Seabiscuit, whose victory over Triple Crown winner War Admiral in the 1938 Pimlico Special made him a working-class hero.

“He’s been at it a long time and he certainly deserves to win,” Karie Gray of Sprague said of McCarthy while watching NBC’s pre-race telecast at Chacers Bar & Grill in downtown Norwich. Gray’s mother, Gloria Beauregard Sevigny, was in the same NFA class as McCarthy.

“The Run for the Roses” at Churchill Downs and Norwich’s “Rose of New England” distinction converged this year with McCarthy-mania and the city’s 350th anniversary.

“The rose thing brings it all together,” Chacers manager Courtney Gray said from beneath a sharp looking, wide-brimmed hat. The bar combined its first “Big Hat Party” with Derby viewing.

Foxwoods Resort Casino also had its first Derby hat contest during its Grand Ballroom party.

The big-screen Derby watching reunion was also a first at NFA. And, yes, a ladies hat contest was part of it. Mary Korenkiewicz Sanborn, class of ’47, was one of three winners, taking home a Kentucky Derby T-shirt.

“Now I have to lose some weight to fit into it,” she joked.

One reunion attendee demanded equality of the sexes.

“There aren’t any prizes for the men’s hats,” said John Bosko of Preston, class of ’39. “That needs to change.”

Maybe next year.

Norwich Bulletin