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Training for the Triple Crown

Posted by Brian Mulligan on 3/29/2011 3:39:07 PM

Kentucky Derby winners or Triple Crown contenders overall just don’t fall off trees. They have to be nurtured, coddled, scolded and punished like the equine children that they are and it takes more than talent to reach the pinnacle of the game the first Saturday in May.

Trainers and basketball coaches have a lot in common. In hoops, you have to treat players differently. Some respond to being called on the carpet day in and day out when mistakes are made and some go into a shell when singled out because of a mental error or a super bad decision. Trainers have to be a combination of good cop, bad cop, big brother, and maybe most importantly, part the reincarnation of Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, who won three times the first Saturday in May, saddled 4 Preakness winners and 6 Belmont stakes heroes.

Once a trainer tries to play ‘catch up’ after missing time because of any circumstance, that runner is in jeopardy of not only missing the Triple Crown races, but of having his entire career negatively impacted by being pushed.

When training a runner specifically for the grueling Triple Crown trail it is not enough to ‘breed the best to the best and hope for the best’, but you also need heart, luck, the right weather conditions, great owners and the correct conditioning strategy.

Face it; racehorses are very special athletes. They have tiny ankles that must carry flesh of 1,000 pounds or more at speeds of over 40 miles per hour and cover a distance of ground. During the grueling spring, these animals are pushed to win 3 races in 5 weeks while shipping to different locales in the process.

The late great Horatio Luro, who won two Kentucky Derbies with Decidedly and Northern Dancer, believed in patient and careful handling and as he put it ‘not squeezing the lemon dry’.

This is the type of racehorse that succeeds the first Saturday in May. A horse that has a good foundation, a runner that has been battle tested but not worn out and a runner that has something left in the tank, in other words a relatively dry lemon.

Guys that know about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat in the training business in recent years include Nick Zito, who succeeded in the Derby twice in 4 years. Dominant trainer D. Wayne Lukas took 3 zenith races between 1995 and 1999 and Bob Baffert had back to back winners of America’s biggest race in the late 90s, then watched as his relatively new acquisition War Emblem cashed in 2002.

The best education about training champions is listening through web-culled quotes to the people who have had success. And even the most successful guys make mistakes. Consider Eclipse champ Boston Harbor. He was game taking the BC Juvenile but was pushed into the Santa Catalina, an early Derby prep and was never the same.

Lukas had considered a sprint prep but opted for the 8 and a half-furlong challenge, which was a debacle. Lukas: “we took a little roll of the dice on conditioning going this far. The pace was quick and he’s certainly not tight enough to do that. I still feel comfortable in what we tried to do.”

It sounds like he was trying to convince himself.

On getting Charismatic, a reformed claimer, to win the Derby: Lukas: “ I finally said, I think this horse is fat and lazy but I’m going to get him dead fit. I’m going to ask him to do things that he wouldn’t dream of. And I bore down on him, I drilled him, I treated him with tough love, if you want to call it that - and suddenly I had a fine-tuned athlete that went on to win the Derby, the Preakness and almost won the Belmont.”

Bob Baffert after War Emblem won the Derby: “After Point Given, I wondered if I’d ever win another one of these again--it’s just too damn hard to win. This year, I took a different outlook: I’m going to get him and train that son of a gun the best I can and get him sharp and lead him up there and see what happens.

And equally difficult to predict but don’t spill that Mint Julep on your way to the windows and hopefully you’ll greet the cashier on your way out.

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