Will VanMeter doesn't have the quintessential first memory of going to Keeneland in the forefront of his mind. Having spent much of his life surrounded by the Thoroughbred industry, such an event is more the norm than a special occasion.
However, Friday at the historic Lexington track is a day VanMeter probably will remember. Just more than a year after taking out his trainer's license, the 30-year-old will be able to claim his first Keeneland starter, stakes starter and graded stakes starter all in one mouthful when he saddles the filly Pearl Turn in the Grade III, $100,000 Hilliard Lyons Doubledogdare Stakes.
That VanMeter's career path would have him cultivating bloodstock is no reach given his bloodlines. The son of noted consignor and former practicing veterinarian Tom VanMeter, the younger VanMeter worked under the master himself in Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas from 2009-2012 after graduating from the University of Louisville with a degree in equine business. He went out on his own last season.
After starting with a couple of 2-year-olds, VanMeter now maintains a four-horse string of which Pearl Turn is the current queen. She won an allowance race at Oaklawn Park on March 14 to become her trainer's first career winner.
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"I was in Saratoga years ago, and ... my dad and (Lukas) are good friends, and so we started talking and he said, 'I love to hire kids that are in the Army,'" VanMeter recalled. "So I kind of always had that in the back of my mind. Then I graduated college and was kind of like 'Now what?' So I called him and he said, 'come on down here tomorrow.'
"(Lukas) deserves a lot of credit because really I didn't know anything. He deserves credit for hiring me in the first place and giving me the opportunity to really learn and grow under him."
In addition to getting support from his father, VanMeter has the backing of Brad Grady, who co-owns Pearl Turn along with Tom VanMeter.
Hungry as he is to make his fledgling operation a success, VanMeter isn't in a rush to increase his numbers by drastic proportions. A hallmark of the Lukas operation is meticulous care of the horses that come out of the barn. Thus, emulating that portion of his former boss's success is VanMeter's main objective right now.
"The main thing is I want to take really, really, good care of my horses," VanMeter said. "I want to have the highest level of care on the backside. I don't want to grow very fast. We started out with two, added two more and hope to maybe add 4-5 more. I want to have our organization in place as we grow."
A good run by Pearl Turn in the 11⁄16-mile Doubledogdare would be a huge endorsement of VanMeter's horsemanship. The 4-year-old daughter of Bernardini began her career in Europe before coming over stateside last summer, where she was previously trained by Graham Motion.
Pearl Turn is diving into deep waters Friday, facing a field of 10 others that includes multiple Grade I winner Emollient as well as graded stakes winners Sisterly Love and Strathnaver.
"She won by 5 (lengths) her last time out and she's been doing really well," VanMeter said of the decision to take a swing in the Doubledogdare. "She's been acting very, very confident coming off her last race. It feels extra special to bring such a nice horse here. She's 50-to-1 (in the morning line), but she doesn't know she's 50-to-1. I think she's sitting on a big race."
One of the keys for a trainer is bracing for best-laid plans to end up for naught — which is why VanMeter is grateful that, so far, his solo foray into the industry has been ideal.
"I think everything has worked out," he said as he watched one of his charges go through their morning paces at Keeneland. "We haven't necessarily had a plan, but it's worked out ideally. We're just kind of growing smaller so we can maintain that standard of care."