Here’s a second installment from Hall of Fame sportswriter Billy Reed on this year’s Kentucky Derby. Thanks to Louisville Catholic Sports.com
Back in the days before television came to dominate everything to do with sports, including the Kentucky Derby, trainers generally were taciturn men who did not suffer fools, i.e. the media and other meddlers, gladly.
Immortal horsemen such as Ben A. Jones of Calumet Farm, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, Max Hirsch, and John Gaver never had to endure a morning where they couldn’t stop for a cup of coffee without being surrounded by reporters armed with microphones and notepads.
As a group, they were private men devoted totally to their arcane craft. They didn’t have the time or patience to deal with novices from the mainstream media who wouldn’t know Citation from a stable pony. They were comfortable only with the familiar faces of the industry media, particularly Joe Hirsch, the worldly executive columnist of The Daily Racing Form.
Back in 1967, trainer Frank Whiteley came to Louisville with the Derby favorite, Damascus, and never did a single mass interview. He put his colt in Barn 24, then known as “Doc Harthill’s Barn” in honor of the veterinarian who had an office there, and pulled down the shutters on the sides so the reporters couldn’t even look in and see Damascus.
On Derby Day, the colt ran the worst race of his career, finishing up a sloppy track behind the long-shot Proud Clarion. As I recall, Whiteley even managed to duck interviews after the race, meaning the public had no detailed explanation of why the 2 to 1 favorite ran so poorly.
Lucien Laurin, who won the 1972 Derby with Riva Ridge and repeated a year later with Secretariat, was a French-Canadian former jockey who always looked like he was going to have a nervous breakdown at any moment. Suffice it to say that the real Laurin was a far cry from the glib, media-friendly Laurin portrayed by actor John Malkovich in the recent movie about Secretariat.
On the other side of the spectrum, Woody Stephens, who won the 100th Derby in 1974 with Cannonade and repeated a decade later with Swale, was a grizzled Kentucky hardboot who never met a camera he didn’t like. Woody loved to talk, mainly about himself and his Hall-of-Fame training accomplishments. He got almost to the point where, if writers didn’t seek him out, he would go and find them.
The sport’s most prominent celebrity trainer was Senor Horatio Luro, the dashing Argentine polo player who won the Derby with Decidedly in 1962 and Northern Dancer in 1964. He dated, and sometimes even married, Hollywood starlets such as Ava Gardner and Betty Grable, and his prowess in the breeding shed – bedroom, make that – was legendary.
Still, the sport didn’t really have a training star who understood the importance of the media until D. Wayne Lukas came along in 1980, winning the Preakness with a colt named Codex, who didn’t run in the Derby because either Lukas didn’t think he was good enough or forgot to nominate him, take your pick.
Tall, handsome, and articulate, Lukas brought a basketball coach’s mentality to thoroughbred racing. Usually wearing a cowboy hat and his trademark tinted glasses, Lukas talked about racing in terms that even novices could understand. He was accessible, quotable, and clever, qualities that nobody ever attributed to most of the training stars who came before him.
He also took the concept of the mega-stable – strings of horses in multiple states – that was pioneered by Marion and Jack Van Berg in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, and took it to a whole new level. Lukas not only had horses at virtually every major track in the nation, they generally were high quality horses instead of cheap claimers, thanks to the deep-pockets owners he recruited every bit as effectively as Rick Pitino or John Calipari working the summer hoops camps.
Lukas and Stephens dominated the 1980s, trading victories and quips at almost every Triple Crown race. When the New York Racing Association gave Stephens a watch to commemorate his incredible string of five consecutive Belmont Stakes winners (1982-’86), Stephens liked to show it off and cackle, “Lukas ain’t never gonna get one of these.”
After Stephens retired, Lukas reigned more or less alone until 1991, when a New Yorker named Nick Zito won the Derby with Strike the Gold. Zito fell in love with Louisville, Churchill Downs and the Derby, and they, in turn, fell in love with him. When he won his second Derby with Go For Gin in 1994, he more or less replaced Stephens as Lukas’ main Derby rival.
But in 1996, a new guy showed up from California with a horse named Cavonnier, who finished second in the Derby, beaten only a whisker by the Lukas-trained Grindstone. His name was Bob Baffert, and, like Lukas, he came from a quarter-horse background. Also like Lukas, he wore tinted glasses and turned into a quote machine for the media.
At first, many writers didn’t take Baffert seriously. He showed up later for work than most trainers and he had a laid-back, California-cool way about him that was far different from Lukas’ intensity. But those who figured that Cavonnier was his one big hurrah on the national stage didn’t understand Baffert’s uncanny ability to recruit owners, pick out runners, and get them ready for the Triple Crown.
In 1997 and ’98, he won both the Derby and the Preakness with Silver Charm and Real Quiet, respectively. For two straight years, he was on the cusp of winning the Triple Crown, something that had escaped every trainer who came down the pike since Laz Barrera did it with Affirmed in 1978.
When Baffert won the 2002 Derby with War Emblem, the score was Lukas 4, Baffert 3, and Zito 2. For 15 years, the “Three Amigos” had dominated the Derby with their charm, wit, and good-natured rivalry. In the years since War Empire, each has come to Louisville with contenders, only to lose out to relative newcomers almost every year.
But this year Zito and Baffert are back with serious contenders – Zito with Dialed In, impressive winner of the Florida Derby, and Baffert with Midnight Interlude, the upset winner of the Santa Anita. The Lukas role has been taken over by one of his understudies, Todd Pletcher, the mega-trainer du jour who broke his Derby maiden last year with Super Saver.
Pletcher had the early Derby favorite in Uncle Mo, who won last year’s Breeders Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs. But when that colt suffered his first loss in the Wood Memorial, his bandwagon was abandoned as if it were the Titanic. However, when post-race examinations revealed that Uncle Mo had run with a gastro-intestinal problem, Pletcher got him the right treatment and he has been regaining his old form in recent weeks.
Besides Uncle Mo, Pletcher will saddle the longshot Stay Thirsty in the Derby. He won the Gotham at Aqueduct, but finished seventh in the Florida Derby. He shouldn’t be dismissed lightly, however, because sometimes a trainer’s second-stringer will pop up and win the roses. That’s what happened to Stephens in 1974, when second-stringer Cannonade went wire-to-wire while the highly-regarded Judger finished up the track.
You could do worse than bet a $2 exacta box on the horses trained by the big-name trainers – Dialed In, Midnight Interlude, Uncle Mo, and Stay Thirsty. These guys got to be superstars because they know how to win the big races. That’s something no handicapper should ever overlook.