Stress on the Derby Trail

We’ve already seen some stress and low tolerance building in the camp of one of the leading Kentucky Derby hopefuls.

Following the Seahawks – Forty Niners game, we saw what can happen when the media probes a star player at a time when his emotions are still running high and the adrenaline is still flowing. There is no down time to gather one’s composure. It is, “What are you feeling right now?” The public wants to know.

Many horse trainers, like athletes, require a fair amount of space and are not receptive to inquisition every time their top Derby contender walks the shed instead of galloping or gallops instead of working. The media and the public have a right to know up to a point, but must realize that the world they are attempting to penetrate is far removed from the outside world. In many ways, an NFL locker room is like a trainer’s barn.

No one but a trainer and his immediate staff can claim to know what it’s like to wake up every morning hoping there is no phone call from the barn or begin work at 4:30 to 5:30 in the morning, seven days a week. Once you arrive, you hope the groom of one of your star horses (or any horse for that matter) doesn’t have bad news for you, like his horse rapped himself overnight, cast himself in his stall, did not clean up his dinner from the night before, has a fever, is coughing, is acting colicky.

Then, once you get past that, you feel your horses’ ankles, hoping they feel cold, tight, and smooth, especially your big Derby horse. Any bump, any hot spot could mean the end of your Derby dream, as well as the dream of the owner, who you then have to call to relay the bad news before the media finds out.

With Twitter and Facebook, the word of any setback, no matter how minor, can leak out and be posted within a matter of minutes. Then the owner reads it and wants to know how come he or she wasn’t told before it became public knowledge.

It is a rare person who can go through this every morning without feeling the pressure and occasionally getting stressed out.

The relationship between trainers and the media during the months of January to May should be kept simple. Everyone wants to get the story out first that a top Derby horse has a setback, no matter how minor, and was forced to miss a work. To the media, it has always been some kind of badge of honor to break a story, regardless of how it will affect the connections of the horse. After all, that is what the media does, and has always done. It’s the nature of the beast, even though most reporters have no idea what goes on behind the scenes, what the inner workings of a stable entails, and just how personally involved the trainer and his help get to these horses and how special they become. Speaking ill of one of their horses – how he has no class, no speed, or no heart – is like speaking ill of one of their family members. “Knock me, but don’t knock my horse” is the philosophy of every stable.

The media has its job to do, and that is informing the public of any important developments in a prompt and accurate manner. Trainers, however, often do not see or appreciate that. Their entire world is so confined and so wrapped up in one barn or one horse or one owner, they have a tendency to keep a lid on what goes on in that world, which they often try to protect from outside invaders..

There is no right or wrong when two opposite worlds collide – worlds that can serve one another at times, but conflict at other times. Simply put, when things are going well, everything connects. When things are not going well, the media can become the enemy.

This is horse racing, especially on the Derby trail where so much is at stake and where a trainer and owner can fall off the trail after strutting happily along just minutes before.

Most trainers embark on the Derby trail with only one horse, creating even more pressure. Some have two or even three, at least giving them something to fall back on. And then you have Todd Pletcher and Bob Baffert, who in many ways, with their arsenal of Derby horses every year, prove how tough it is to win the Derby, and in some years, just make it there.

Last winter, Baffert, who has won three Derbys and whose strength is getting horses to Churchill on the first Saturday in May, had a barnful of potential Derby horses – Flashback, Power Broker, War Academy, Code West, Tiz the Truth, Shakin it Up, Belvin, Super Ninety Nine, Govenor Charlie, Curly Top, Carving, and Title Contender. None of them made it to the Derby, as Baffert was forced to watch from the sidelines. Even for a Derby guru like Baffert, there are no guarantees on the Derby trail, which proves perilous year after year.

Pletcher, on the other hand, managed to get five extremely talented horses to the Derby starting gate – Revolutionary, Verrazano, Palace Malice, Overanalyze, and Charming Kitten. They finished 3rd, 9th, 11th, 12th, and 14th. The last time Pletcher saddled five in the Derby, all finished out of the money. We know about the ones that make it, and five is an exceptional feat in itself, but forget about the ones that don’t – in Pletcher’s case last year, the top-ranked Violence, 2-year-old champ Shanghai Bobby, Delhomme, Capo Bastone, Winning Cause, Abraham, Doherty, and Forty Tales. 

Until someone can feel firsthand the pressures Derby trainers go through on a daily basis, they should not be critical if they catch a trainer in a bad mood or being elusive, or trying to protect the sanctuary that is their barn.

On the other hand, trainers must realize that a reporter also has a job to do and faces deadlines, and many stake their reputation on not looking totally foolish with their prognostications, even though they are merely guessing, just like everyone else. But it is difficult to even give an educated guess when one is deprived of important information. Racing is a humbling game and, as the saying goes, “There is nothing like a horse to make a person feel like an ass.”

With a bit of consideration for the other’s job, trainers and reporters can get along just fine. A trainer can bend the truth once in a while, as long as they don’t break it. A reporter can report the truth, as long as they don’t invent it.

If a trainer is fortunate enough to win the Derby and attain the immortality that comes with it, remember, it is the praiseful words of the media that enhance your horse’s reputation and provide all-important advertising material for years to come.

(These words to live by are presented by the Derby Dozen, which kicks off next week.)

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