JACKSONVILLE, Ark. -- Behind rows of wrecked police cars and vans with crunched bumpers and broken windshields, Bob Yagos' horses chomp on hay and trot across patches of green.
With prized colt Archarcharch already at Churchill Downs for next weekend's Kentucky Derby and other horses still at Oaklawn Park, Yagos' humble barn is nearly empty these days.
Its wooden arches and metal roof are far removed from the pricey digs that other Derby contenders call home. There's no track next to Yagos' auto salvage yard and he sends them to Oaklawn or elsewhere to be trained.
Yagos takes a break from the chop shop and ventures back to the barn he pieced together with pine and metal.
Inside the stable, a 13-month-old named Screaming Mushrooms nuzzles his hand.
"We were trying to name him 'Smoking Mushrooms' but they wouldn't let us have that," Yagos said. Noisy planes -- from the nearby Little Rock Air Force Base -- fly overhead. The horses, Screaming Mushrooms and Blondie, don't flinch.
"It doesn't bother them," Yagos said. "They get used to it."
Yagos actually sees the horses' humble surroundings as an advantage.
"That's why we're not too worried about our horse at the Derby," he said, pausing. "He's used to this. Anything that's going down there, he just takes it in stride."
Yagos takes pride in his hands-on approach to horse ownership. He feeds his stable of 10-12 horses each morning before a 10-hour workday at the salvage yard, and he does the same when he leaves at night.
"Most of the owners are hands-off," Yagos said. "Some aren't, but a lot of the owners, they go to the sale, buy them and ship them someplace and they never see them until they hit the race track.
"They don't understand what it is every day to take care of them. They get a bill every month and pay the bill."
The New York native has learned about racing from the ground up during his 20 years in the business. He began to dabble in the sport as a "diversion" once his salvage business had taken hold in Jacksonville, some 15 miles north of Little Rock, and he allowed himself weekends off after years of seven-day work weeks.
Yagos started with Arkansas-bred horses, but when the best kept getting claimed he moved on to Kentucky-breds. It was during that time he met trainer Jinks Fires.
Raised in the small northeast Arkansas community of Rivervale, Fires started as an exercise boy at a track near Memphis. After breaking a group of yearlings, he went to the track with them in 1959 and never left.
More than 50 years later, the 70-year-old Fires spends most of his year on his small farm near Oaklawn in Hot Springs. He's spent the last week at his summer base of Churchill Downs, prepping Archarcharch for next weekend's Run for the Roses.
Fires watched his first Kentucky Derby in person in 1961, and he still remembers that Carry Back was the winner. He's only missed two races since, both during his stint in the Army.
Despite his affinity for Churchill Downs, Fires has never had a horse race in the Derby. That changed when Archarcharch took command down the home stretch of the $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 16, holding off a charging Nehro by a neck for Fires' first Grade 1 win.
"We never had gotten that right horse yet, but we knew we would one of these days," Fires said. "We finally have and it's very exciting."
Fires recommended Archarcharch to Yagos as a yearling in part because of his laid-back nature, and Yagos eventually bought the colt for $60,000. Yagos trusted Fires' opinion without question, as he does in all on-the-track training decisions and purchases.
It's the kind of trust usually reserved for family, and Yagos considers Fires just that.
"We all kind of feel that way," Fires said. "We all have a lot of respect for each other. There's never a secret between us."
The family feel carries over to the track, where jockey Jon Court -- Fires' son-in-law -- has ridden Archarcharch to wins at the Southwest Stakes in February and the Arkansas Derby.
Court has ridden for Yagos for nearly seven years and is close with Yagos and his wife, Val. Court rode for another owner in guiding Line of David to victory in last year's Arkansas Derby, but he missed the Kentucky Derby when that owner changed jockeys.
Yagos made it clear following Archarcharch's Arkansas Derby win that he wouldn't dream of taking Court's mount from him at Churchill Downs.
"This is far more exciting and sincere just because of the family and friends and longtime relationship we've had with the Yagoses," Court said.
Like Fires, Yagos has a horse in the Kentucky Derby for the first time. He nearly missed out on the chance altogether when he received a pair of $2 million offers for Archarcharch following his Southwest win at Oaklawn on Feb. 21.
Yagos declined to name the potential overseas buyers, citing a confidentiality agreement, but he did admit to signing one of the contracts to sell the horse. However, when the buyer returned the contract 15 minutes after the deadline, Yagos and his wife had a change of heart and decided to hold on to the horse they had fallen in love with.
He thought of the potential buyers following the Arkansas Derby win.
"I bet they're kicking themselves now," Yagos said at the time.
Yagos and Fires each took particular satisfaction in winning the Arkansas Derby in their home state. Yagos didn't grow up in the state as Fires did, but he's been in Arkansas for nearly 40 years after first being stationed here during his time in the Air Force.
"It was very exciting to win the derby at home in Arkansas," Fires said. "Between Bob and I, we know at least half of (the) Arkansas people, and the ones we don't know they know us."
The proximity makes it easy for Yagos to travel to Oaklawn to see his horses train and race under Fires, though there are drawbacks in the eyes of some to a horse having a low-profile Arkansas owner and trainer. And that's before they find out about the barn next to the salvage yard.
"You don't get the respect," Yagos said. "When we go to Chicago and they see it's an Arkansas-bred horse or trainer from Arkansas, you can tell by the odds."
Those long odds continued at the Arkansas Derby when Archarcharch was a 25-1 shot. Yagos welcomed the long odds, just as he expects them at the Kentucky Derby.
"If he drops out of the top 10 before the derby, I don't care," Yagos said. "He can't read the tote board."
Regardless of the outcome, Yagos will cherish his first Kentucky Derby as an owner.
"We're so much further than we ever expected to be," Yagos said. "So anything from here on is gravy. If he finishes first, you won't find anyone happier. If he finishes last, we're just happy to be there.
"We're going to come away with a positive attitude, no matter what happens. As long as he comes out of the race healthy, that's all we care about."