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“Second sucks. I don’t believe in second. Second ain’t good enough.  I know it sounds crazy but if you settle for second in this game  you won’t survive."

So says Derek Ryan, the Irish trainer of Musket Man, one of the fancied horses in May 2nd's 135th Kentucky Derby.

This year Ryan burst onto the big time with Musket Man, who won both the Tampa Bay Derby (G3) and the Illinois Derby (G2). The horse has won five of his six races and taken in a cool $572,600 along the way. 

Ryan says he should be 6 for 6 but he “was bashed around a bit" in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in February.

“Everyone says he has beaten nothing, but he has beaten everything he has had to beat. As they say, keep yourself in good company and your horse in bad and you’ll be alright."

Daniel Centeno rode Musket Man to win at Tampa, but shortly after, Ryan and the horse’s owners (Eric Fein and Vic Carlson) decided to give Eibar Coa the ride.

“We switched after the Tampa Derby. He (Eibar) has a lot more experience in these races, and I have had a lot of success with him and so has the owner.  He’s ridden in the Derby three times, and we’ve gone with the more experienced rider with whom we have had a lot of success with.”

Ryan, a Thurles native, is a 40-something trainer who made his move to the States in 1989. “I was always a bit of a traveler, and I always wanted to come to the States. After that I had planned to go to Australia, but I never left the States and have been here ever since.”

Before he crossed the Atlantic, he worked at the Curragh, with Tommy Stack, and also worked in England, France and Germany.

Once stateside, Ryan worked for whomever needed his services.  In 1996 he decided to branch out for himself and started Derek Ryan Stables.  One of his first mainstream successes was Emergency Status, who won the Jersey Derby (G3) in 2002.

“When you don’t have big, big clients and you can’t afford expensive horses, you buy what you like as opposed to pedigree. That was the first good one I bought. He didn’t have a ton of pedigree, but he was a big handsome horse. Actually his sire was a horse called Academy Award who I think won the Manhattan Derby, but I bought him because I could afford him.”

Ryan himself will have plenty of family in Kentucky for the Derby. Two sisters and a brother will be coming over from Ireland, while another brother based in Alabama will head up for the race. Also on hand to cheer him on will be his three-and-a-half year old son – too young to be interested in horses, Ryan jokes that he’s far more “into trouble.”

Ryan, whose assistant Martin Weir comes from Banbrigde County Down (a sprightly 56-year-old who still gallops 10 horses a day),  has no worries when it comes to Musket Man’s temperament.

”The horse has a great disposition, he’s probably got the best disposition of any horse that I’ve ever had, and nothing ever bothers him, so the big day isn’t going to affect him. Like I said I don’t want to be second or third, I wanna win. We wouldn’t have come here if we didn’t think we had as good a shot as any anybody else, and I wouldn’t swap him for anybody.”

Ryan plans to give the horse one more run out on Saturday or Sunday, then “wrap him in cotton wool”  before he heads to Churchill Downs.

“I know it sounds crazy because it is the Derby, but this horse is special. If the bigger name trainers had him they would be touting him as a super horse. If he runs his race, he will be tough.”