When confronted with difficult decisions, horse trainers typically fall back on a couple of tried-and-true devices. When in doubt, defer to what your horse is telling you. And, if further assurance becomes necessary, look at what has worked in the past and duplicate.
Todd Pletcher’s judgment has filled his mantel with seven Eclipse Awards for outstanding trainer and made him Thoroughbred racing’s all-time leader by career earnings. So forgive him and owners Twin Creeks Racing if they seem unfazed by asking multiple graded stakes winner Destin to try to break fresh ground in the 142nd Kentucky Derby.
The gray son of Giant’s Causeway has carried himself with aplomb during his morning training at Churchill Downs this week, fitting since he has some of the freshest legs in the expected 20-horse field. When Destin is loaded into the Kentucky Derby starting gate Saturday, he will be making his first start since winning the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby on March 12, an eight-week hiatus that is testing the limits of history in the classic.
If the last decade has proven anything, it’s that some previously hard and fast Kentucky Derby rules were made to be broken. Where a five-week layoff was once considered an automatic bet against, four Kentucky Derby winners — Barbaro (2006), Big Brown (2008), Mine That Bird (2009) and Orb (2013) — have pulled off that feat in the last 10 years.
Animal Kingdom pushed the boundary even further when he came off a six-week break to take the 2011 edition of the first leg of the Triple Crown. Given the way barriers have been broken, and the fact Destin does have the foundation of three races this year, the consensus after his latest triumph was that he didn’t need to do anything extra to prove himself Derby-ready.
“I don’t try to overthink that,” said Randy Gullatt of Twin Creeks Racing, which recently sold a minority interest in Destin to Eclipse Thoroughbreds. “I think every week in the last three weeks we’ve seen a better horse and that is what we were predicting we would see. He’s had four stiff races every month (since December) and we just didn’t think he needed another one.
“Sometimes when you ask for ‘A’ races from these growing horses too many times, it’s when are they going to say ‘no.’ And we wanted him at his best on Kentucky Derby Day.”
Time is particularly welcomed in the Pletcher operation.
Few are better at bringing a horse back off a layoff than the former protégé of Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas. Pletcher-trainee Liam’s Map won the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile last fall off an eight-week hiatus while Kentucky Oaks morning-line favorite Rachel’s Valentina was beaten just a neck in the Grade I Ashland Stakes on April 9, her first outing since running second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies last Oct. 31.
Pletcher has even gone down this road before, saddling Circular Quay to a sixth-place finish in the 2007 Kentucky Derby off an eight-week break. In his mind, the sample size is too small to deem his latest attempt futile.
Sometimes when you ask for “A” races from these growing horses too many times, it’s when are they going to say “no.” And we wanted him at his best on Kentucky Derby Day.
Randy Gullatt, Twin Creeks Racing
“It was a tough decision because part of it is you’re passing up a good opportunity in between. There’s the Wood Memorial, Blue Grass, Arkansas Derby, all were considerations and Grade Is and significant races on their own,” Pletcher said. “We just felt like for us, that we’ve had success in the past giving horses a little extra time. Looking back to last year’s Breeders’ Cup with Liam’s Map, he didn’t run from Saratoga to Breeders’ Cup. We just feel like sometimes our horses run well fresh and that should apply to the Kentucky Derby as much as any other race.”
Take away the banter about his schedule and you have a contender in Destin who hasn’t done a whole lot wrong in winning three of his five career starts.
When Twin Creeks Racing purchased the full brother to Grade I winner Creative Cause for $400,000 at the 2014 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, Gullatt boldly said they already had the Derby penciled in for his future. In the rare case of a horse sticking to the script his humans plotted, Destin has hit every goal and advanced.
Two starts after breaking his maiden at Belmont Park last October, he opened his 3-year-old campaign in the Grade III Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds where he never quite leveled off and finished fourth. When he shipped to Tampa Bay Downs to capture the Grade III Sam F. Davis on Feb. 13, he ran a more focused race, tracking fourth in an outside path before taking over in midstretch and turning back a brief challenge from Rafting.
His Tampa Bay Derby effort was a near carbon copy trip with hindsight revealing an even more impressive result. Not only did Destin surge past stablemate and eventual Grade I Wood Memorial winner, Outwork, in the final strides, but Brody’s Cause, who would go on to take the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes, was a non-factor in seventh.
“We did not take him to Saratoga (last summer) because we wanted to make a Derby horse out of him. We’re tickled that he’s stuck to the plan perfectly,” Gullatt said. “And we knew how good Outwork was. He was probably one of Todd’s best work horses all winter long so we knew how good he was. That will tell you how good (Destin) is, that he’s said ‘yes’ every day since the day we started.”
With that Tampa Bay Derby outing, Pletcher and Twin Creeks saw enough. Whether it’s enough to triumph Saturday, they stand by their decision to study their horse rather than the history books.
“I really think everyone is putting too much into what it takes to get to the Derby. I think every horse is different, every situation is different,” Gullatt said. “If Destin didn’t have four races in four months we probably would have had a race a month out. But in the situation he was in, we felt like the best shot to take our best shot on May 7 was not running him a month out.”
Kentucky Derby draw
5:30 p.m. (NBC Sports Network)