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Kentucky Confidential


Derby Pressure Makes for Testy Trainers

Trainer Todd Pletcher at Keeneland. (Eclipse Sportswire)

After Uncle Mo’s loss in the Wood Memorial, a turf writer posed a simple question to trainer Todd Pletcher.

“You didn’t expect this, did you?”

“Of course I didn’t expect it!” Pletcher testily replied.

There followed an uncomfortable silence during which the offending party was reviewed by a steely cold stare. Then Pletcher spoke again.

“I also didn’t expect that question,” he said.

Testy trainers are no novelty as the Kentucky Derby draws closer. Racing writers often are on the receiving end of sarcastic quips and irate digs sprinkled amidst the daily doings of Derby week. Even the most innocuous question may trigger an explosive retort or evasive, agitated answer. There are reasons for every short fuse, however, and, in many cases, they are well founded.

* * * * *

It is Tuesday. Four days until Derby remain. The trainers who have made it thus far hold their breath. They’re a perpetually worried bunch, gray before their time. Whether conditioning Kentucky Derby contenders or starting 2-year-olds fresh to the track, they live in an eternal state of inward pessimism, assuming something will go wrong – not if, just when. The vulnerability of each equine charge is never magnified so strongly as during Derby week, when the smallest temperature or slightest muscle strain could be enough to throw a horse out of the race.

From twisted ankles to cracking hooves, from loose horses to boggy tracks, myriad disasters await. There’s also the sudden spotlight from local and national media, as veteran turf writers mix with clueless rookies in a convergence of acute chaos. Every move is scrutinized, every stray hair remarked upon. The intense microscopic examination is enough to set even the most easygoing individual on edge.

“The pressures this week are extreme,” said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who brings Fountain of Youth Stakes winner Soldat into the Derby off a fifth-place finish April 3 in Florida Derby. “You’re not so much troubled by what goes wrong, it’s all the time you spend thinking of what you hope doesn’t go wrong.”

McLaughlin said trainers deal with the pressures of owners’ hopes and dreams, as well, knowing their responsibility for the welfare of the horse may result in great disappointment in the end.

“You have this great group of owners, and there’s all the planning and airplane fees and hotels, that kind of thing,” he said. “You just want to make sure everything goes well. For me, I get a little nervous when my horse goes out on the racetrack every morning. You hope they get around there safe and back and nothing crazy happens. But I do keep my personality about me, and I try not to get too upset about anything. I have great help, which helps, so we just hope everything keeps going smooth, and if it doesn’t, it’s out of our control.”

Owner Ahmed Zayat, whose Nehro comes into the Derby off a runner-up finish April 16 in the Arkansas Derby for trainer Steve Asmussen, knows all too well about the pressures horsemen face. In 2009 he nearly won the Derby with Pioneerof the Nile, only to be upset by 50-1 shot Mine That Bird. Last year, he had the formidable early favorite in Eskendereya, only to scratch the horse a week before the race due to filling in his left front leg. Eskendereya never raced again.

This year, Zayat’s primary contender was Jaycito, who was scratched before his final prep race, the Santa Anita Derby, because of a bruised foot. He will miss the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.

Zayat’s Derby contenders all hailed from different the barns of different trainers: Asmussen, Pletcher, Bob Baffert, and Bill Mott.

“It’s a different trip with every one of them, and it’s funny because I think horses reflect on their trainer and vice versa,” Zayat said. “I would describe Baffert as a very humorous, loose guy who just loves the game. Pletcher is very disciplined, and his horses show a lot of discipline. Asmussen is pretty reserved, a great horseman, and Bill Mott is the master of all, in my opinion.”

According to the owner, each individual set of circumstances dictates how a trainer reacts on the Derby trail — with varying degrees of stress and anticipation.

“I’ve seen them under very different circumstances,” Zayat said. “When I came here with ‘Pioneer,’ Bob Baffert exuded confidence. When I came in with Todd Pletcher, talk about somebody handling pressure, he is absolutely the master of that, and he handled himself very well in the middle of a very unfortunate event (with Eskendereya). With Steve Asmussen, with a horse like Nehro, who he thinks is probably his best shot so far, it’s completely different; the man has won everything and trained the Horse of the Year three years in a row, but I’ve never seen him so excited or nervous.”

McLaughlin shed some light on the reason trainers occasionally lose their cool, especially toward the end of the long week. It’s dealing with the pressure, the possibilities, and the straw that breaks the camel’s back – questions like the one Bob Baffert faced in 2001, when he was mostly keeping his distance from reporters while managing twin contenders Point Given and Congaree.

“Bob,” a neophyte reporter interjected, trying to join a little gathering with Baffert and more seasoned writers. “If you don’t win the Kentucky Derby with Point Given this year, will you bring him back next year and try again?”

“In 2006 a reporter walked up and asked me where the trainer was and what time she would be at the barn,” said McLaughlin, whose first name is Kiaran, not Karen. “That was pretty funny and ridiculous. I just said, ‘I’m the trainer,’ and introduced myself. I figured that’s why you need to be here, to put a face with a name.”

Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito dealt with pesky, aggravating intruders in a unique way in 2005, when he had five runners in the Kentucky Derby, erecting a white plastic fence around his barn, securing the perimeter. It created the air of a polite state of siege around him, with one sign on the fence reading “Keep Out” and another tempering the command — “Thank you.”

Barclay Tagg had trained for many years in Maryland and New York in relative solitude before bursting into the public eye in 2003 with the fabulous gelding Funny Cide. Tagg ran hot and cold throughout the Triple Crown, gracious at times, holding mass outdoor press conferences, and prickly and pained looking at others.

The day before the Preakness that year, Bill Christine of the Los Angeles Times reported that Tagg dismissed the only two reporters who showed up to his barn at Belmont Park, hours before he shipped Funny Cide to Pimlico.

“I want you to understand, and I’m going to be as polite as I can about it,” Tagg said to Christine. “We’ve got people working here, and my insurance is out of sight. I can’t talk until later on — when I get done training.”

Tagg didn’t even let a photographer shoot pictures outside the barn, Christine wrote. When he got to Pimlico, Funny Cide didn’t take the traditional stall reserved for the winner in the stakes barn; Tagg, instead tucked him away from the action inside the barn of trainer Mary Eppler. He had exercised his old Maryland connections.

A year later, campaigning Funny Cide as a 4-year-old, Tagg reflected on the pressure of the Triple Crown in a story in The Washington Post.

“In some ways you appreciate when you have it and appreciate it when it goes away,” he said. “It’s such an intense business, then something (like winning the Derby) comes along and distracts you. It’s a big change.”

Certain personalities, of course, are more cut out to deal with the stress. Just ask Baffert, the King of Cool himself.

“I’ve been here and I think my experience with it all, so many times, has helped,” the Hall of Famer said. “I just train them like I would train if I were getting ready for something else. I don’t get caught up in what everybody else is doing with their horses. If your horse is doing well and he looks like he’s fit, then you hope you’ll run well. You learn to appreciate just getting to the Derby, that’s why everybody gets into this game to try to make it to the Derby. It’s so tough to get here and you never know who you’re going to get here with. All I know is that we made it through today so that’s one less we’ve got to wait out.”

John Scheinman contributed to this report.

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Author PhotoA Chicago native, Claire Novak is the winner of the 2011 Media Eclipse Award for Feature/Commentary and has written on racing for some of the nation’s best-known outlets, including ESPN The Magazine and, the Associated Press, and NBC Sports. She is a former staff writer and current correspondent for The Blood-Horse Magazine, and is also a guest correspondent for Lady Luck on TVG. Visit her website or follow Novak on Twitter. More by  ›