JC / Railbird

D. Wayne Lukas

Four Derbies, One Triple Crown

Bob Baffert might be the one trainer a non-racing regular can name, thanks to his Triple Crown race record (Wall Street Journal — beware paywall):

[Not even D. Wayne Lukas] can match Baffert’s ruthless efficiency. Both have won the Derby four times, the most of any trainers in the last 50 years. But Lukas has done it starting 48 horses, versus Baffert’s 27. Both have won the Preakness six times, but Lukas’s total comes in 41 attempts — more than twice Baffert’s 18.

For the past 20 years, Baffert’s California-based operation has been a Triple Crown juggernaut. He won both the first two legs of the Triple Crown in two consecutive years in 1997 and 1998. Then after years of more big-time wins both in the U.S. and across the globe, his Triple Crown triumph with American Pharoah in 2015 sealed his legacy as one of the best ever.”

Related: Paying a visit to American Pharoah, “a stud and a gentleman.”

Taking the Blame

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas tightens the girth on Take Charge Brandi in the Saratoga paddock before the 2015 Test Stakes

After Take Charge Brandi finished last in the Test Stakes at Saratoga last Saturday — the 2014 juvenile filly champion’s first start coming off an injury — trainer D. Wayne Lukas said the problem was all him:

“It was a bad training job,” Lukas said inside his office on the Oklahoma Training Track on Wednesday morning. “I misread her. I thought she was a lot tighter. She threw up a (four-furlong) 48 (-second) training work on the Oklahoma, and I thought, ‘Damn! She is way ahead of schedule.’ So, I backed up a little bit on her and I just misread her.”

The trainer also told Mike Kane:

“[S]he was dog-tired when she finished [in the Test]. She blew out of there and ran as far as I conditioned her … I wish had pushed her a little bit more and had her more ready,” Lukas said. “But the good news is that it’s fixable.”

She’s pointing to the Cotillion at Parx on September 19.

8/16/15 Addendum: Take Charge Brandi is back to work, breezing five furlongs on the Oklahoma track in 1:00.90, the fastest of four at the distance.

The Deal

Eric Crawford on how Calumet ended up buying Mr. Z for a Preakness run:

Working as the go-between, Lukas mediated a conversation between Calumet and Zayat. It began on 7 p.m. Tuesday night. By 8 o’clock Wednesday morning it resumed. Lukas not only was working with a couple of wealthy parties, but against the clock. By 10:10 on Wednesday, he had a deal, and then, with the help of some fast work by Justin Zayat, completed the deal in the 20-minute window he needed in order to get Mr. Z entered …

D. Wayne Lukas likes what he’s seeing from the Malibu Moon colt this week: “He is coming into the race beautifully, the same way Oxbow did.” (Oxbow derailed Orb’s Triple Crown chase with an upset in the 2013 Preakness.) If Mr. Z wins, and that’s a longshot, it’s easy to imagine the stunned reaction — he’s won but once in 13 starts. “We think he can be a pace factor in this race,” TimeformUS handicapper Mike Beer writes, echoing the consensus view. “We would be surprised were he to be more than that.” What wouldn’t surprise me is if he finishes third or fourth; he’s been competitive enough to make the trifecta in races previously won by American Pharoah and Dortmund.

The trainer, though, didn’t pull off this caper only for Saturday — he has a plan for Mr. Z that involves running a mile and maybe on the turf.

California Chrome’s next turn on the turf is coming up in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot on June 17; from afar, trainer Art Sherman dreams of having him back. A hint, for fans, that he may return to run at Keeneland: “We’re sure looking at the Breeders’ Cup, hopefully the Classic.” I think that may be the first mention this year of a BC tilt — co-owner Perry Martin earlier sketched out a schedule mostly abroad. But then, who knows? The Chrome team seems disjointed, a state Dick Powell would have liked to see delved into during NBC’s Kentucky Derby coverage:

I was frustrated by the piece done on CALIFORNIA CHROME (Lucky Pulpit)’s ownership problems. They implied that Perry Martin and Steve Coburn are not getting along due to a disagreement on where the horse is going to run but there was not enough depth to the coverage. They interviewed the loquacious Coburn but never asked him any specific questions about when and why did the relationship go wrong. It made Martin, who is anything but loquacious, seem like the villain but he does own 70 percent of California Chrome and, thus, calls the shots.

There was a brief mention of him racing at Royal Ascot next month but they never really got into trainer Art Sherman’s feeling of not having him back at his home base. Plus, no video of him training in Newmarket. They tried to re-visit last year’s feel good story but didn’t develop why the relationship went bad. Considering how long the show is, no real excuse not to answer why it went wrong.

Chrome’s first race back in the US will be the Arlington Million, says Martin.

Everything is hunky-dory in the American Pharoah camp. “AP best he ever been,” owner Ahmed Zayat tweeted at Ed DeRosa when he floated some “anti-American” buzz. “Just ask all … at Pimlico he is A BEAST.” Dave Grening confirms: “Baffert is indeed correct when he says Pharoah floats over the ground. Man, he is an impressive individual.”

But the whip issue has not gone away: “Whether you vilify Victor Espinoza’s Kentucky Derby ride or defend it, this much is clear,” writes Pat Forde, “all eyes in Baltimore will be on the jockey’s right arm, and how many times he brings his riding crop down on the flank of American Pharoah on Saturday …

Whether he wins the Preakness or not, says Bob Ford, he lost the Triple Crown in the Kentucky Derby:

From a tactical standpoint, Espinoza did what he thought necessary to get American Pharoah home and that is his job. It has also been said by jockeys and trainers that the lighter, softer whips used now often act as more of a metronome than a bludgeon, tapping out the stride and keeping the horse aware of the job at hand.

Unfortunately, Pharoah is not able to corroborate this theory and define whether that final stretch run was accompanied by an excited urging or something more terrifying. He arrived at the finish line spent, even though the Derby was the second-slowest running over a fast track and the third-slowest last two furlongs since 2000. American Pharoah really didn’t have it on Derby Day, but still won …

Jay Hovdey comes down on the side of what he calls the “rational” insider view: With today’s padded crops, whipping is no big deal. That Espinoza was so free with his stick (subscriber only):

… was an issue only because it was the Kentucky Derby, which 16 million people watched on NBC, although I’m guessing not many of them noticed or even pretended to care until the whip count was brought up in Derby postmortems.

The Churchill Downs stewards decided that the rider did nothing wrong, and Espinoza was unapologetic, which made sense because no apology was required. Jockeys are handed the whip and told to go win the race, only now it is in an atmosphere of ever-changing rules governing the use of the stick.

His column does highlight just how subjective it is, assessing whip use, referencing, as others have done, how many times rider Calvin Borel struck Rachel Alexandra in the 2009 Woodward. Quantitatively, the 21 hits Borel gave the filly is closer to the approximately 20 Espinoza gave California Chrome in the 2014 Kentucky Derby. But those wins look nothing alike. Qualitatively, the 2009 Woodward and this year’s Derby do — both riders determined to win, both horses giving their all. Emotion influences perception. It’s enough to make what’s a 50% increase of one over the other seem equal.

Pletcherology

Trainer Todd Pletcher has decided to pass on the Preakness Stakes, declining to enter either of his two Kentucky Derby finishers, or potential contenders who skipped the Derby, and could, presumably, be Preakness ready, such as Stanford. Materiality, sixth at Churchill Downs, will point instead to the Belmont Stakes. “If you come back in two weeks and you turn out to be wrong,” said Pletcher, “not only could you not run well in the Preakness, it could compromise your chances in the Belmont as well.”

That puts the likely Preakness field at seven*, a short number that inspired Brian Zipse to speculate that the trainer is sending a message, a message that it’s time to alter the Triple Crown schedule:

It should be crystal clear to us all that America’s top trainer is making a strong statement that the Triple Crown races are too close to each other on the calendar. Because of this, the Middle Jewel, the Preakness, is the odd race out for the powerful Todd Pletcher stable …

I’m not sure we’ve ever seen such an obvious example of why the timing between races of the Triple Crown should be expanded. Todd Pletcher, America’s most influential trainer, is not running any of his horses in the Preakness — Not Materiality — Not Carpe Diem — Not Competitive Edge — simply because it is too close to the Derby.

Right.

Tom Jicha makes a related point:

It isn’t just the Preakness that gets short changed … the Kentucky Oaks got Alciabides winner Lovely Maria, Louisiana Oaks champion I’m a Chatterbox, Gulfstream Oaks victor Birdatthewire and Santa Anita Oaks winner Stellar Wind. The Black Eyed Susan is getting none of them.

(My opinion re: a schedule change hasn’t much changed since last year.)

The quick return doesn’t scare trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who had Mr. Z, 13th in the Derby, vanned to Pimlico. “He’ll run in the Preakness or he won’t run at all,” Lukas told Alicia Wincze Hughes. There’s just one problem — owner Ahmed Zayat, also the owner of Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah, doesn’t want him entered. “Can’t stop that man,” he tweeted. “Wow. Mr. Z not running.” Zayat was further “completely unambiguous” when asked if the colt would start on Saturday, reports Marty McGee, saying Mr. Z “does not belong in the race on his merits.” But someone’s signals are crossed: “Oh, he’s running,” said Lukas. The Preakness draw is today, beginning at 5:00 PM ET.

2:45 PM Update: “Lukas was not to be denied.” Calumet has purchased Mr. Z for a Preakness run. “They gave us an offer we could not refuse,” said Zayat.

*6:00 PM Update: The Preakness drew eight. Here’s the field with morning line: 1. American Pharoah (4-5); 2. Dortmund (7-2); 3. Mr Z (20-1); 4. Danzig Moon (15-1); 5. Tale Of Verve (30-1); 6. Bodhisattva (20-1); 7. Divining Rod (12-1); 8. Firing Line (4-1). (Get the Hello Race Fans cheat sheet.)

5/14/15 Addendum: Pletcher, asked about altering the Triple Crown schedule:

“I’m torn on what’s the right thing to do,” Pletcher said last month at Churchill Downs. “I think you lose the historical significance if you [change the schedule]. I think you can argue as the breed has evolved and trainers have evolved, [there should be] more time for the horses between races.

“There’s a far better chance we’ll have a Triple Crown winner if we do that, but will it have an asterisk next to it? I don’t know.”

Three Days Out

When asked, before the 1983 Preakness, about Marfa’s quarter crack:

Lukas responded: “When you get so close to one of these Triple Crown races with a good horse you do everything you can to make the race.”

The reporter countered with this remark that ended the press conference: “That sounds great Mr. Lukas, but isn’t it the horse that’s going to have to run around the track on Saturday; not you?”

Deputed Testamony won, Marfa finished fourth.

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