Once upon a time, not long ago (actually, only three months ago), Twin Creeks Racing Stables had a hot prospect for the Kentucky Derby named Destin.
Having a Derby contender was nothing new to Twin Creeks, which is owned by Randy Gullatt, a one-time aspiring trainer, and Steve Davison, who has always enjoyed putting a bob or two on the ponies. From their initial investment, a $7,500 claim, they have built Twin Creeks Farm into one of the fastest rising operations in the country, along with another Kentucky farm, Machmer Hall, owned by Randy and Kim Gullatt’s friends Carrie and Craig Brogden. Between them they have produced a virtual assembly line of major stakes winners in a relatively short period of time.
Twin Creeks, despite its size in relation to some of the huge Kentucky breeding establishments, has managed to make its mark on the Kentucky Derby trail, winning the 2010 Louisiana Derby with Mission Impazible, and then capturing the 2014 Florida Derby with Constitution, who was making only the third start of his career. That same year they won the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs and finished second in the Tampa Bay Derby with Vinceremos. In between, they had the brilliant Graydar, who Randy picked out of a 2-year-old sale for $260,000. Unfortunately, when Graydar won his career debut at 3 in spectacular fashion by 8 1/2 lengths, it was already April, and he had no shot of making the Kentucky Derby.
Mission Impazible could manage only a ninth-place finish in the Derby at odds of 16-1, Vinceremos finished a dismal 14th in the Blue Grass Stakes, beaten 28 lengths, and then was 17th, beaten 29 lengths, in the Derby at odds of 49-1, while Constitution was injured after the Florida Derby and would be sidelined for 6 1/2 months. Graydar would go on to win four consecutive races at 3 and 4, including the grade I Donn Handicap and grade II New Orleans Handicap and Kelso Handicap, but would never race again.
Destin was a late-maturing colt, but made huge leaps in a two-month span and figured it all out at just the right time, winning the Sam F. Davis Stakes and Tampa Bay Derby in the style one looks for in a Derby horse. Destin had more brilliance than the hard-knocking Mission Impazible and was more durable and battle-tested than Constitution and Graydar. Although he was to follow the same path as Vinceremos, he was far more talented and was not expected to fall apart in the Blue Grass Stakes the way Vinceremos did. It seemed as if Twin Creeks finally had found their perfect Derby horse.
But it didn’t take long after the Tampa Bay Derby, in which Destin set a new track record in beating his highly regarded stablemate Outwork, for Gullatt and Davison to discover that their perfect Derby horse on a perfect path to the Derby had just run a less-than-perfect Derby prep and suddenly was no longer on that perfect path.
In April of 2012, Davison and longtime Ragozin employee Jake Haddad had purchased The Sheets, which many trainers, owners, and big-time horseplayers swear by. The last thing you want to see on the Derby trail, especially in mid-March, is a horse who makes a dramatic leap forward, running a far better figure than he’s ever run before. That is an indicator that the race took too much out of a horse and that he would regress (or bounce) in his next start. And no one wants to see their horse regress in his final prep for the Kentucky Derby. Ideally, you want your horse to be moving forward in a steady progression and be ready to peak on Derby Day.
Destin, who had looked to be on course for a peak performance at Churchill Downs, had instead peaked at Tampa Bay Downs on March 12. And running back in the Blue Grass could knock him out and jeopardize the entire Triple Crown.
To demonstrate just what had transpired, one can look at the Ragozin Sheets’ longtime rival Thoro-Graph, which showed that Destin, having run a “9” in the LeComte Stakes and then a “7” in the Sam F. Davis, soared to a “negative 3/4” in the Tampa Derby. By comparison, not a single Derby hopeful this year had ever run a negative number, and he did it in one huge leap.
Now Twin Creeks had the unenviable task of trying to get to the Kentucky Derby with the least amount of damage being done. The following is all conjecture, but an owner in their position could run in the Blue Grass Stakes as originally intended and risk a total meltdown or do the unthinkable and run Destin in the Derby off an unheard of eight-week layoff and never having been farther than 1 1/16 miles. No horse in modern times has won the Derby off that long a layoff. An owner could very well decide that the latter was the lesser of two evils. Their chances would be severely compromised either way. They could very well have a short horse in the Derby, but at least this way they would have a horse for the Belmont Stakes, where he could get back on a good pattern.
As it turned out, Destin, in finishing a respectable sixth in the Derby, beaten seven lengths, ran a “2” on Thoro-Graph, a bounce of 2 3/4 points even with the eight-week layoff, but not a bad number by any means. Now it’s a question of whether he can get back close to his career high in five weeks. We obviously don’t know what it’s going to take to win the Belmont.
Years ago, before the advent of the speed sheets, Destin would have run back in the Blue Grass as scheduled and no one would have given it a second thought. But it’s a brand new game now, especially when the co-owner of a horse also owns The Sheets.
Neither the owners nor trainer Todd Pletcher came out and stated publicly why they were training up to the Derby. But that also is the nature of the game. Whether they said so or not, they had no choice but to do what they did.
Pletcher was quoted in the Louisville Courier-Journal: “It seems like the Tampa Bay Derby has turned out to be a sort of key prep this year with our two and Brody’s Cause coming back to win the Blue Grass. You always like to see those races’ form hold up, and this seems like a horse that’s coming in here fresh and happy. We feel confident enough that we can have him fit and ready to go. We’ll see if that’s good enough.”
Whether that was typical pre-Derby spin or not, an eight-week freshening and being happy does not equate to winning the Kentucky Derby, especially considering this was not their original plan. Anyone who follows Ragozin or Thoro-Graph knows why those plans were changed.
In any event, that was then. All that is important is now. No one can say for sure whether Destin is back on a winning pattern or even how he’ll handle the mile and a half. He sure does have the right running style for Belmont, and it’s just a matter of whether he can hold his stalking position for that long and still have enough to fend off the large number of closers.
I thought enough of Destin to move him from No. 12 on Derby Dozen to No. 2 in one week until I found out about the big change of plans and trying to buck history.
This is what I wrote about him after the Tampa Derby: “I realize this is a huge jump for this colt, but two weeks ago I said that he was my dark horse for the Kentucky Derby, and after the Tampa Bay Derby there is nothing dark about him any longer, and no one else has really blown me away, except perhaps Mohaymen, so I’ll take a shot that his two races at Tampa Bay were legitimate. This colt looks like the real deal, and has been since the light bulb went on inside the eighth pole of the LeComte. That’s when he woke up and decided to become a racehorse. He missed the stakes record by a fifth of a second in the Sam Davis and he set a new track record of 1:42.82 in the Tampa Bay Derby, earning one of the rare triple-digit Beyer figures. Now all he has to do is duplicate that away from Tampa just to prove he’s not a one-track wonder.
“He has matured faster than any horse I’ve seen in a long time and I don’t believe we’ve seen the best of him by any means. His approximate fractions of :24 2/5, :23 2/5, :23 3/5, :24 2/5 and :06 2/5 in the Tampa Derby were very strong and he once again came home his final sixteenth in fast time. When Castellano reared back and hit him right-handed about 50 yards from the wire, he jumped back to his left lead, indicating he doesn’t need or want any encouragement. What was most impressive was the 7-length gap between Outwork and the third horse, and in spite of his lack of experience, Outwork was always thought to be something special.
“This colt has always possessed the physical tools to be a top-class horse. He just needed his mind to catch up. Ever since he was a baby, he’s been quick, strong, and athletic. But when those attributes are combined with a stubborn streak, it often results in exercise riders being tossed on their fanny, as was the case with this colt. But now that he apparently has matured mentally and become a professional racehorse, who knows how high he can ascend. To demonstrate how much he keeps improving, he beat Rafting by 2 1/4 lengths in the Sam Davis and beat him by 10 1/4 lengths in the Tampa Derby. Castellano tried pulling him up on the turn, but he wanted no part of that either, tossing his head around, and actually took off again nearing the backstretch. In short, this colt has the class, toughness, pedigree, speed, and foundation you want to see in a Derby horse in a year when few can boast that.”
Now he has one final chance to land a classic victory for Twin Creeks. If he is indeed back on track after deviating so far off course before the Derby, they may yet be rewarded after the unsuspecting hand they were dealt. I don’t know Davison, but Randy and Kim Gullatt, like the Brogdens, are the new face of racing and breeding – young and vibrant, with a knack for breeding, buying, and raising good horses. Now that they’ve cleared their mind of speed figures they can get back to basics and just deal with the butterflies and sweaty palms, and let their horse take care of the rest.