The Guiding Lights
by Tom Carley
This week we will continue to introduce the characters in this show we call Derby 2020 or Derby 146. Last week we looked at some of the horses. This week we will look at the trainers. These are the men (and women) who have charted the course that each of their Derby hopefuls will follow on their way to Louisville. Trainers are not simply horse lovers who get to “play with horses” each day. Rather, they are CEO-like in that they manage the multi-million dollar, four-legged assets each horse’s owner has entrusted them to evaluate, care for and coach to peak performance for the First Saturday in May.
A trainer has to make many tough decisions along the Derby Trail:
+ Is their horse truly talented enough to win the Derby? If not, then have to break the news to the owner and find other, easier races for the horse.
+ How often to run their horse, keeping in mind the need for Derby points?
+ How to ensure the horse has peak endurance while being rested enough to be able to make its best effort on Derby Day?
+ How to manage the different Derby prospects within their barn (without upsetting any owners)?
+ How to manage the media to obtain additional owners who will purchase horses he can train in 2021 and beyond?
With such a slight margin of error, there are fewer jobs more nerve racking than that of trainer for a Derby horse. Just last year, Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella had to scratch Derby favorite Omaha Beach only a few hours before the race. He described the event saying, “For six months the horse could not take one bad step, not catch one cold. And to get so close to the race and to have this happen is heartbreaking.”
First, let’s recap last week’s Derby prep action:
Oaklawn Park started their 2020 meet on Friday with a Derby prep race, the Smarty Jones, which awarded 10 Derby points to the winner. Friday saw a lot of rain fall in Hot Springs, Arkansas. This led to a muddy racetrack. Throughout the day (the Smarty Jones was the 8th race) a pattern emerged (also call a racetrack bias) of speed horses being able to stay in front with closers having little luck catching the early front runners. That thought will lead to my race takeaway and it does not involve a horse that finished on the board (1st, 2nd or 3rd).
Trainer Steve Asmussen trained 4 of the 9 horses in the field. One of his two longshots, Gold Street, especially liked to lead early in the race (a speed horse), and with few speed horses in the race got off to an early lead. Gold Street also had showed a liking to the mud as his 2 wins in 5 races had been on a muddy racetrack. Still, in this talented field he was sent off at odds of 10 to 1. He quickly took the lead and managed to hold it all the way (going gate to wire) holding off two of his stablemates and earning 10 points. I do believe his effort was aided by the muddy racetrack and the lack of speed horses in the field. I also question whether this horse has the stamina to run 10 furlongs (a furlong is an eighth of a mile). Eclipse award (best in the sport) jockey Irad Ortiz flew from Miami to Hot Springs for the sole purpose of riding Three Technique, who had won his last two races and never been worse than 2nd in four career starts. He raced mid pack and made a slight move in the stretch, but could not out kick the winner. This $180,000 purchase did run well last summer at Saratoga and is one to keep an eye on later this Spring.
The horse that caught my eye ran 4th. While many of you may be scratching your head and wondering why I’d be so interested in a horse that ran 4th, it is the way he raced that caught my eye. The Steve Asmussen-trained Silver Prospector came into the race after winning a Grade II race at Churchill. He liked to run on the front end. However, he bumped into another horse coming out of the gate and was at the rear of the field around the first turn and all the way up the backstretch. About 3/8 of a mile from the finish, he began to run and started passing horses quickly, eventually running 4th. He made up over 10 lengths on the winner. I was not focusing on the result, but rather how effortlessly he gained on the field when he started to lengthen his stride.
Remember, last year in the February Fairgrounds prep race The Risen Star, I saw a similar move by a horse that did not win that day. I kept that horse in the back of my mind and wagered on him in future races. That horse’s name was Country House, who won the Derby as the longest shot on the board.
This week we focus on the trainers. The Derby process of earning points to qualify and getting a horse to run farther than he (with apologies to Taraz) ever has before is unlike any other in racing. While I do not eliminate horses trained by those who have never won the Derby before, having a trainer who has experience in navigating the Derby trail is definitely an advantage. Few first time trainers do well in the Kentucky Derby. Trainers such as D. Wayne Lukas and Todd Pletcher sent over 20 horses to the Kentucky Derby before they won their first. They each subsequently won multiple Kentucky Derbies.
A conversation of modern Kentucky Derby trainers cannot begin without mentioning Bob Baffert. Baffert. The silver haired trainer based in California, has won 5 Derbies in total. One thing I noticed is that Baffert wins his Derbies in bunches. He won in 1997, 1998 and 2002 as well as 2014 and 2018. I studied this observation and found it true with Wayne Lukas and Todd Pletcher. This could be a sign of using Derby success to attract other owners who would buy and then send to Baffert quality baby horses for him to develop into Derby winners.
Baffert’s barn appears loaded in 2020 with Derby prospects. Randy Moss mentioned this last Saturday in the NBC telecast of the Pegasus. We profiled Eight Rings in last week’s column. Baffert also trains Thousand Words, Authentic, High Velocity, and Nadal. Baffert also showed us in 2018 with Justify that he can start a horse’s career as late as February 8 and still win the Derby. Until then, it had been over 100 years since a horse won the Derby that did not race as 2-year-old. Baffert dominates the California Derby prep races, but this year he is going to have to ship other places in order to have his horses avoid getting beat by their stablemates. He has the best assistant trainer in the business in Jimmy Barnes. Last weekend Baffert let Barnes take an older horse Mucho Gusto to Florida to win the $3 million Pegasus and Baffert watched it on television from home. Look for Baffert to send horses to Sunland Park, Oaklawn Park and possibly the Fairgrounds. Baffert’s go-to rider is Mike Smith, who is the best big money race rider in the game today.
Last year proved to be a breakthrough year for Mark Casse. Traditionally, a trainer based at Woodbine in Toronto. Casse won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes last year (the other two races of the Triple Crown) with different horses. Over the last five years, Casse added to his group of strong owners who are willing to buy horses at auction and let Casse develop them. His best horse, Enforceable, already won the LeComte, while he also trains well respected Lynn’s Map. While Casse has never won the Derby, he has kept a string of horses at Churchill Downs for years and won many Graded stakes races.
Chad Brown is quickly becoming America’s best known trainer. Last weekend he won his fourth consecutive Eclipse Award as Outstanding Trainer. Brown is known more for his success with turf horses (those running on grass rather than dirt) and had his lone Triple Crown win in the 2017 Preakness with Cloud Computing. Over the last two years, Brown has focused more on dirt horses and has a real prospect this year in Structor. This horse had his first work of the year in Florida last week and will embark on a journey through Florida toward Louisville. Brown is attracting more owners focusing on dirt and over the next 5 years should win his first Derby given how quickly he found success in training.
Steve Asmussen might be the best trainer never to win a Kentucky Derby. For years he led the country in the number of races won focusing on claiming and lower level stakes races. Around 2004, he made the decision to focus on quality instead of quantity. He has had some Derby success and ran second in 2017 with Lookin’ at Lee. He had success worldwide with Curlin. He has won over 1,000 stakes races, but the Derby has eluded him. He comes into 2020 with his best crop ever led by Silver State, Silver Prospector, Shoplifted, and Gold Street who won the Smarty Jones last weekend. Look for him to full fields with his horses in the middle of America and Southwest. Two things to remember about Asmussen is:
1. His horses work very slowly; so do not compare his horse’s workout times with those in other barns.
2. He has no problem running his horses against each other early in the Derby season. He ran 4 in the Smarty Jones and 3 in the LeComte.
It is too early to determine the full Derby field. It would not be difficult to envision the above trainers accounting for half of the field this year given the depth of talent in their barns. Do not be afraid to include a horse on your ticket based on the trainer. An old handicapping theory is to include a barn’s worst horse on your ticket as many times a late developing horse might be thrown into a race and ignored by betters who focus on horses with a track record.