New Beginnings at Season's End

Will VanMeter at Saratoga with Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird (photo courtesy Will VanMeter)

LEXINGTON, Ky. (April 24, 2013) -- The meet may be coming to a close at Keeneland, but training goes on year-round for many who stable here. One newcomer to the scene will be former D. Wayne Lukas assistant Will VanMeter, who earned his license back in February and plans to start a small string of 2-year-olds at the Lexington oval. VanMeter, 29, is the son of Dr. Tom VanMeter of VanMeter Sales, and got his education from the master, Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. The young horseman worked under Lukas from 2009-2012 after serving two years in the Army. A graduate of Sayre School in Lexington, he completed his education at the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville in 2008 before going to work for "The Coach."

"To get the chance to go and work for Wayne right out of college is like, if you're passionate about baseball, getting to go work for the New York Yankees," VanMeter said of his tenure with the 77-year-old conditioner, who will send out Oxbow and Will Take Charge in the May 4 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). "When I called and asked him for a job and he said 'Yeah, be down here next week,' it was like my entire life had changed. It was an honor to get to go and work for him and as far as somebody I idolize, he's definitely at the top of the heap because he’s been able to be on top of his game for decades. There’s trainers that have won the Kentucky Derby that don’t have horses any more, but even when they say he's down, he's got 30-35 horses and he's never out. He's always able to bring new people into the game. For somebody to be so consistent for so long is amazing."

VanMeter has been recruiting hot and heavy in search of new owners to support his step to independence. 

"The good thing about being young is, my slate’s kind of clean," he said. "When Wayne gives a sales pitch to some owner, he’ll say 'Look I’m in the Hall of Fame, I’ve won four editions of the Derby, I've been training for over 50 years...' Well, I don’t have any of that, but just because I’m young doesn’t mean I don’t have any angles to my sales pitch."

What are the pros of sending a runner to a fledgling horseman? VanMeter laid them out.

"One thing is, I’m small so I’m going to be able to give your horses and you much more attention than you’d get if you went to a bigger stable," he said. "I’m honest, and I know I can’t just come out and say 'Hey, I’m honest' and have people believe it, but I hope over the course of five or six years, if I’m fortunate enough to be training that long, people will say 'This kid, I really enjoyed having a horse with him because he told me exactly the way it was, and I knew if I sent a horse with him, I’d know exactly where I stood and how that horse was doing.'

"I’m hungry," VanMeter went on. "I have a lot of desire and passion to succeed. Nobody’s going to be outworking me, I do know that. And I definitely want to approach my horsemanship from a very old-school way. I firmly believe that if you take care of the horses, they’re going to take care of you."

Among VanMeter's first charges are offspring of Street CryPulpit, Unbridled's Song, and Tale of the Cat.

"I’d like to recruit a couple more horses now, at least start out with eight or 10," he said. "With three or four, you’re one bad day of training from being out of business." 

VanMeter may be found on twitter, @VanMeterWilliam. He said he takes his cue from trainers like Graham Motion, who uses the social media network to communicate with owners and fans.

"I think some owners aren’t getting a fair shake when it comes to communication and getting in touch with their horses," he said. "I carry around a video camera and a camera in my phone in my pocket every day. It’s not going to cost me anything to take a picture or take a video of a horse working or cooling out. It’s going to take me 30 seconds to send that to an owner. There’s a lack of basic, common-sense modern principals in racing that are happening in every other business but ours. Every new restaurant or coffee shop has these ways of promoting their business and keeping in touch with their clients. For whatever reason, there’s only a couple trainers that are actually using social media. It’s exciting to try to tap into something that hasn’t really happened yet."

VanMeter said he looks up to Motion in another way -- both the British expatriot and Frenchman Christophe Clement have never had a medication violation appear on their record.

"I don’t want to create a culture in my own barn where I’m trying to test the limits of medication," the new trainer explained. "That’s something I learned from Wayne. If he had a horse that was on anti-inflamatory medication, it was never like 'Let’s run it up until the last possible second we can give,' it was 'If the cutoff day is three days before a race, take him off six days ahead of time.' One of my main goals is to never have a medication violation. I just don’t want to rely on medication. If a lot of owners actually saw what it looks like to inject a joint, would they even agree with it? That’s where you’ve got to find certain owners who actually agree with how you approach things. For some owners it’s not just about winning, it’s about taking care of the horse and how you get to the end result, and those are the kinds of people I'd like to work with."


Jockey Mike Smith was in Lexington to visit his old friend Zenyatta last weekend (photo courtesy Mike Smith)

Jockey Mike Smith was a long way from California on April 22, but since home is where the heart is, he was right where he belonged. After working Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) contender Midnight Lucky at Churchill Downs for trainer Bob Baffert, Smith took a trip to Lane's End Farm near Versailles, where he visited with 2010 Horse of the Year Zenyatta and her new foal, a chestnut Tapit colt. The Hall of Fame reinsman, who paired with Zenyatta for 16 wins from 20 starts and rode a remarkable unbeaten streak until a head loss to Blame in the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I), posted endearing photos of himself reuniting with the Street Cry mare on his facebook page.

"Visiting the new little guy!" he captioned one shot. "Isn't she beautiful?" read another.

Smith also shared a photo of himself enjoying quite a delicious-looking pizza from The Grey Goose on Jefferson Street, one of Lexington's hidden gems.

But the Queen and her colt were definitely the highlight of the trip.

"Some things never change," Smith said.

Jockey Mike Smith with Zenyatta and Tapit colt, Z13, at Lane's End (photo courtesy Mike Smith)


Lisa Danielle, dam of 2012 Horse of the Year Wise Dan, at Patchen Wilkes Farm April 24 (photo: Anne Eberhardt)

Visitors to the quiet haven that is Patchen Wilkes Farm, a Thoroughbred oasis just off highway 75 near Lexington's Hamburg shopping center, could not help remarking upon the similarities shared by 2012 Horse of the Year Wise Dan and his dam Lisa Danielle. The brilliant chestnut, Morton Fink's only remaining broodmare, surely stamped her three-time Eclipse Award-winning son--not just with looks, but with class.

Lisa Danielle, a 19-year-old daughter of Wolf Power, also produced grade II winner Successful Dan, and the duo's winning half brother, Casino Dan, from 11 foals. She is a finalist for the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association and Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders' Broodmare of the Year award, along with Leslie's Lady, Matlacha Pass, and Mining My Own. The winner will be announced April 25 at the annual KTOB Awards Luncheon at Keeneland.

Bred in Illinois by Triple C Thorostock out of the Secretariat mare Askmysecretary, Lisa Danielle came to Patchen Wilkes as a yearling in 1995 after being purchased for $29,000 by Fink. Aside from a brief and unillustrious racing career and one trip to New York to be bred to City Zip (sadly, that resulting foal died), she has spent her life at Patchen Wilkes. 

"They asked me to board their horses for them back when they had Carelaine Farm," farm manager Barry Ezrine recalled of Fink and his former racing partner, Roy Gottlieb. "We boarded their horses for them until they dispersed everything except Lisa."

Lisa Danielle would not only become the dam of Wise Dan, but would foster the relationship between Fink and trainer Charlie LoPresti and his wife, Amy. Based at Keeneland and near Lexington with their Forest Lane Farm, LoPresti saddled Wise Dan to victory in four straight graded stakes last year, including a record-setting romp in the Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT), for a season that saw him named outstanding older male and champion turf horse as well.

"Morton said 'Well, I need to break her,' so I recommended Charlie and Amy LoPresti and that's how that relationship started," Ezrine said. "It was a number of years before they started training for him, but they were breaking yearlings for him."

Lisa Danielle is 44 days in foal to More Than Ready after a year off.  

"Her last foal was born with some complications, it was a red bag presentation," said Ezrine. "She foaled on Derby Day, in the middle of the afternoon. At that point Wise Dan had won a couple stakes and actually set the track record at Keeneland in the Ben Ali, and then things really started clicking for him. She deserved a year off."

Patchen Wilkes is best-known as the home of remarkable white Thoroughbreds (they registered the first white Thoroughbred in North America with The Jockey Club in 1963). Even while visitors were there to see Lisa Danielle, Ezrine could not help pointing out the remarkable coloring of a recent arrival, the Thunder Gulch colt pictured below.

Thunder Gulch colt out of the Skip Away mare Spot of Beauty, a daughter of Patchen Beauty (photo: Anne Eberhardt)

Now they're known as the birthplace of Wise Dan as well.

"Yeah, we're proud of it, for sure," Ezrine said. "There's only one person every season who raises the Horse of the Year."

Lisa Danielle, a $29,000 Keeneland September yearling purchase in 1995, all class in 2013 (photo: Anne Eberhardt)

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