Road to the Triple Crown Todd Pletcher and Gary Stevens
Road to the Triple Crown Todd Pletcher and Gary Stevens
Jim Gluckson: Good day everyone, and welcome to the first NTRA Road to the Triple Crown Media Teleconference of 2013. I’m sitting in today for Eric Wing who will be back with you for the remainder of these calls and, of course, in two weeks when we resume the series for the NTRA.
Today we have two excellent guests to begin our series of calls. Todd Pletcher will be joining us shortly to talk about his undefeated three-year-old Violence, the favorite in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream, and Dogwood Stable’s Palace Malice in the Grade 2 Risen Star also this weekend. Then, we will be joined a little later on by Hall of Fame Jockey, Gary Stevens, who’s returned to riding after a seven-year absence and is off to an excellent start in 2013. Gary will be riding Proud Strike for trainer Steve Asmussen in the Risen Star, and, of course, he’ll also be riding Midnight Ballet in the Rachel Alexandra Stakes.
Just the point obviously this year that we’re going into with a new era with the Kentucky Derby, Road to the Kentucky Derby points standings that started this year following yesterday’s Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park won by Super Ninety Nine. The first portion of the Road to the Derby Race series known as the Kentucky Derby Prep Season has been concluded and beginning with Saturday’s Fountain of Youth and Risen Star Stakes we’ll begin the first leg of the Kentucky Derby Championship series which consists of eight races from February 23rd through March 24th with total point values for those races of 85 points each with 50 points going to the winner of those races. Obviously, this would determine the top 20 starting position for nominees to the Triple Crown for the Kentucky Derby.
So, without further ado I think we should go to our first guest, Todd Pletcher, a five-time Eclipse Award winning trainer who trained the 2010 Kentucky Derby winner, Super Saver, and of course, he also trained the 2007 Belmont Stakes’ winner, the filly Rags to Riches. We can bring in Todd right now. Todd, welcome. Jim Gluckson here in New York.
Todd Pletcher: Hey, Jim, how are you?
Jim Gluckson: Fine. How are you today, Todd?
Todd Pletcher: Excellent, thank you.
Jim Gluckson: Great, great. Todd, I want to start off with this new world that we have with the Kentucky Derby Prep Season. In the past horses that you had win races such as the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the CashCall Futurity such as that you have here with Violence in the CashCall and winning the CashCall; and Shanghai Bobby winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, these would’ve been graded stakes or earnings, monies for you, for your horses; not the case this year. It is a new system. I wondered if you comment on the new system and how your preparations for this year’s Triple Crown as you deploy your horses around the country has changed.
Todd Pletcher: Well, I don’t know that a whole lot has changed. The most significant difference is what you pointed out. I mean, some of these horses like Violence and Shanghai Bobby who won significant races as two-year-olds would already be secured a position in the starting gate by—based on graded earnings. And in this case, while they’re still towards the top of the points leader board, they’re still far away from securing a position. So, I don’t know that their prep schedules have changed much; what’s so critical is that they run well and I think in their cases, they’re only going to have two Triple Crown prep races so obviously we need them to perform well in those races.
Jim Gluckson: Yes, getting into your two starters for this weekend, talk about Violence if you would first. You said he was working an excellent work at Palm Meadows on Sunday. Can you comment on his development this year?
Todd Pletcher: Well, we’re really pleased with the way the horses train. He came directly from Hollywood Park to Palm Meadows right after he won the CashCall Futurity and we sort of at that time decided that we felt the Fountain of Youth was a good starting point for him. We freshened him up a little bit with this race in mind and we’ve been very fortunate that everything’s gone exactly according to plan up to this point. So we’re excited about getting him started again, feel like he’s a colt that’s already proven that he’s very good; he’s adaptable to different pace scenarios; he’s now won around two turns. He’s even won on a synthetic track, so he seems very versatile, very professional, great mind, and we’re just looking forward to getting him going.
Jim Gluckson: All right, well let’s just have—we have a different scenario with Palace Malice who at Fair Grounds in the Risen Star he won—he was second in his first start this year at Gulfstream in an Allowance on January 19th. Talk about him for a little bit, please.
Todd Pletcher: Well, he’s a colt that we really liked a lot this summer and felt like he was right at the head of our two-year-old class. We ended up starting the Belmont in a race that was a little short of what we felt like he would be at his best but he still performed very well to finish second in that race. He came back and won a quality maiden race in going 6-1/2 at Saratoga we felt like we were on our way to the Hopeful Stakes when he had a shin issue come up and so we had to give him about 30 days off for that, which sort of put us on a schedule to get him ready for Gulfstream and thought he ran very, very well in his comeback race going 7 furlongs.
we feel like he’s always been one that should stretch out, and the added distance is going to be in his favor so we’re excited about getting him going in the Risen Star and, you know, hopefully he’s one that steps up and runs in a graded race like the way he’s been training which is very, very well.
Jim Gluckson: All right, very good. At this time, we have a lot of media on the line, Todd, that would like to speak with you.
Jennie Rees: Yes, Todd. Sort of an unusual week in that we know now who are in the two races and I’m guessing that you’ve probably taken a peek at past performances. Could you just dope out the two races, yes?
Todd Pletcher: Well, I think they’re two quality races and both races have a little more depth than we anticipated. I thought that especially as of only a couple of days ago it sounded like the Fountain of Youth was going to be as short as a six or a seven horse field and it sort of blew up to 11. I think in both races you’re getting a good mix of closers and some speed on both fronts so you sort of have, you know, what should be some honestly run races just, keep an eye on the weather in New Orleans and see how that affects things; it could possibly be muddy conditions there. But I think both races are very, very solid races with some new shooters and some horses stretching out for the first time and some accomplished route horses so it’ll be— should be very interesting.
Jennie Rees: What about coming off layoff with both these horses with—well, no, I guess Palace Malice has the one race, but with Violence coming off the layoff what sort of unique challenges, if any, does that pose with this field where a lot of them have already raced over the track?
Todd Pletcher: Well, I think it can always be an edge to have a start, but hopefully we’ve done our job and have him prepared properly. But generally that’s pretty solid statistics for our barn. I think the fact that some of the horses that they’ve been working with have been running well is encouraging an, in Violence’s case he won his first out of his life. Both of his races were with plenty of spacing in between so I feel like based on his training regimen that he should be ready to run well.
Danny Brewer: Talk about Violence for a second. He’s had three wins at three different tracks. What does that mean for this horse?
Todd Pletcher: Well it says a lot about his versatility and, you know, the fact that he’s won at not only at three different tracks, but three different distances; the horse has a terrific mindset; he’s very un-phased by new surroundings. He shipped all the way California in his two-year-old year and never turned a hair, so I love that about him. He seems to be taking everything in stride and as, like I said earlier, adaptable at just about any pace scenario. So far he’s just been a consummate professional.
Danny Brewer: His wins, they’ve been kind of tough wins, kind of gutting wins where he’s been challenged and he’s responded. Is that (inaudible) his development and his maturity level?
Todd Pletcher: Well, I think so. I was particularly impressed by his seven furlong maiden win the first time out when he ran against more seasoned horses that had already had a couple of starts and seven-eighths is always a very demanding distance to start out at and, you know, he dug down and found more and was able to win a tough race against a horse that came back to win very impressively later on in the year. And I think the next two races were maybe a little easier than they looked, particularly the CashCall Futurity. I felt like he took the lead mid-stretch and he idled a little bit and pricked his ears coming to the wire I felt like there was more to give, so, you know, just love everything about him so far.
Scott Jagow: I’m just curious about your connection with Steven Marshall. I know he’s kind of new in the game and obviously has a very nice horse here, so I’m wondering how you guys got connected.
Todd Pletcher: He had a horse named Silver Medallion that he’d purchased in his three-year-old season and sent him to us at the end of his three-year-old season. Nick Sallusto, his representative, contacted me and asked me if we’d be interested in training that horse which, of course, we were. And then got to know Steven a little bit and he told me about some of the yearlings he’d bought. We had a couple of conversations about the possibility of training them and fortunately for us Violence was one of those and sent him to us in his two-year-old season and we’ve had a couple of other horses for him as well, and, you know, it’s been a very good relationship so far.
Scott Jagow: All right, I guess he’s either trying to keep his expectations a little bit low or does he seem pretty excited about this opportunity with Violence.
Todd Pletcher: Well, we all know what the expectations are at this point so there’d be no point of trying to keep him in check. I mean, you know, we all have a game plan in mind and we talked about it and the different strategies insofar as far as how to get there and, hopefully, this is the first step in his three-year-old year to get to the races we’re hoping for.
Tim Wilkin: Hey, Todd, it seems like every year we’re always asking you the question about how deep your three-year-old crop is and I know on more than one occasion you’ve said, “Well this month, you know, in years past this one might be the best. That one might.” Is this year’s the deepest you’ve ever had? Right now?
Todd Pletcher: Well, at this stage it certainly seems like it is. You know, I’ve said that a number of times before you always want to keep your expectations in check and have your hopes in check when you have all of these three-year-olds. In the middle of February we all know things can go wrong between now and the first Saturday of May, but, you know, I can’t recall having, the depth oo the stable that we have at the moment and, not only to have the reigning two-year-old champ, but several other ones that the expectations are just as high for. So we’re excited about it, but we’re also realistic and hopeful that we can continue to keep them healthy.
Tim Wilkin: How many horses, Todd, right now are on the Triple Crown trail, the Derby trail for you?
Todd Pletcher: I think all the obvious ones are there and hopefully we have some other ones that are still trying to work their way more solidly onto it. But, it seems like the coming weeks that we’re pretty well-represented in all the upcoming preps. So—or at least everything outside of California—so hopefully, at this point it could be as many as six or seven, but none of them have gotten there yet.
Tim Wilkin: So right now you say there’s six or seven that are being pointed that way?
Todd Pletcher: Being pointed towards Triple Crown preparations, yes.
Andrew Beyer: Todd, with six or seven, you know, bona fide Derby contenders, how do you go about planning the schedules for the horses so that they’re not bumping into each other? And do you ever, do you feel that sometimeslike an individual horse, mightt be compromised because you can’t do what you want with them because you’re keeping them out of the way from some of your other horses?
Todd Pletcher: Well, I’ve always tried to keep as many of them separated as possible. It’s not always easy to do that and there’s going to be some cases, and I would imagine definitely in the final round if we’re fortunate enough to have the same number that are currently on the path still on that path, but, we’re going to have to run some horses in the same races. But some of their schedules are laid-out well in advance. Some of them will change as we go along and some of them might be changed again, but generally to me it’s always important to try to space the races out properly and so a lot of it depends on that; and, of course, a lot of it depends on the owners and what races they feel strongly about. So a lot of discussion about that; I think probably even more so this year with the point system in place constantly, you know, thinking about that and the best—trying to put your horses in the best position to earn the points to get there.
Don Jensen: Yes, Todd, I’d like to skip ahead a couple of weeks. At the Tampa Bay Derby you seemed to be pointing Verrazano up here. Can you talk about his development and also touch on why he didn’t race as a two-year-old?
Todd Pletcher: He just had some baby issues that held them up a little while. He was ready to run mid-to-late December and just the timing of it wasn’t a race available so that’s why he got started on January 1st. I think he was most impressive in his debut and even more so in his one-mile Allowance win. I kind of picked out the Tampa Derby because I like the spacing and we felt like March 9th was a race that could set him up for just about anything after that and would leave the window open for the Florida Derby back in three weeks. We also put him on a nice schedule for the Wood Memorial a month later and if we needed an extra week then we still have the Arkansas Derby as sort of as a third plan.
So it was really about timing as far as the Tampa Bay Derby goes, two-turn experience important and the fact that we were able to win 2010 in Kentucky Derby with Super Saver who started off his campaign in the Tampa Derby. We’ve had some success there before and I felt like it was a logical path to take.
Don Jensen: Can you talk about how his development since January, Todd?
Todd Pletcher: It’s been pretty straightforward. I mean what you saw in Allowance win I thought was very impressive. He’s a good-sized colt that carries his weight really well. He’s been a pretty easy horse to train so far. He’s very professional and he’s got that’s unique quality of speed and stamina to go with it. He’s come along really, really well over the last few months.
Marcus Hersh: Todd, I was wondering about comparisons between Palace Malice and Discreetly Mine, another horse who you sent to the Risen Star who had never run two turns before.
Todd Pletcher: Well, in both horses’ cases I felt like their pedigree suggests they would want to go further. In Palace Malice’s case we’ve had him, since the beginning of his career and Discreetly Mine we picked up sort of at the end of his two-year-old year, so I don’t know that there’s a lot of comparisons as Discreetly Mine ended up being really at his best as a sprinter and was able to win the King’s Bishop at seven-eighths. But Palace Malice is a horse that has a terrific action and he’s got a very efficient stride; gives every indication to us that two turns is what he’s looking for. So hopefully we’re still seeing that after this weekend, but, you know, would be a bit surprised if it didn’t turn out to be the case .
Marcus Hersh: So given that speed he’s shown sprinting, would you expect maybe he would be on or near the lead at this (inaudible)) or is he a really rateable start where, you know, he might take back to keep him going long?
Todd Pletcher: I think he is a ratable horse, but, at the same time we’re not going to take away what’s coming easy and as much speed as he’s shown in shorter races, I’d be surprised if he were in a very prominent position early.
Marcus Hersh: Yes, and you said—you mentioned about the weather. He ran in the slop obviously last time. I mean were—did you think that he really ran his A race that time or would you be concerned if it came up wet?
Todd Pletcher: No, I think that experience should help him if it comes up wet and I think he handled the racetrack fine. I think we ran into a bit of a mud lark in Majestic Hussar who has two wins in the slop now. And we knew that Majestic Hussar would show speed that day and we didn’t want to make—we didn’t want to make it into a full out sprint. We wanted to hopefully ride a smart race and teach the horse something and move forward from it and when Majestic Hussar sort of got the jump on him I think that was the difference. But I was very, very pleased with that race. That was very good effort and you’ve got to look beyond more than the fact that he was second. I love the way he did it and the way he galloped out afterwards so I was very pleased with it.
Ed Zieralski: Hi, we got to see Capo Bastone out here as a younger horse, as a two-year old, and I saw where he won the Allowance there at Gulfstream and his bleeding situation in the Breeders’ Cup, I wondered how the horse came out of that race and I was wondering what your plans are for Capo Bastone.
Todd Pletcher: He came out of the race in very good shape; seems to have bounced out if it really well. I haven’t had a chance to firm up a next race plan for sure with Aaron Wellman. One of the things that we had discussed because of the timing of it was a race like the Rebel at Oaklawn Park on March 16th could certainly be a target. But Aaron and I spoke immediately following the race and decided we’d give it a few days and see how the horse did when he got back to the track and sort of set up a firm game plan in the next week or so.
Ed Zieralski: So where does he rank in your—you mentioned six or seven horses that you have. I mean obviously he’s one of them, right?
Todd Pletcher: Oh yes, definitely. He fits in there for sure.
Jon White: Todd, did Palace Malice and Violence work in company Sunday at Palm Meadows?
Todd Pletcher: Yes, they did.
Jon White: And what can you tell us about that workout?
Todd Pletcher: I thought it was a very good workout for both horses.
Jon White: And just kind of take us through it. I mean did they break off together and stay together the whole workout or just (cross-talk).
Todd Pletcher: It was a five-eighths work from the pole where both horses start off head-and-head. It would’ve taken a very accurate photo finish camera to separate them at the finish line; I could not with a naked eye. They went off in :36 and change and finished in :23 and change; galloped out in 1:12 and change. I thought it was a super workout for both horses.
Jay Privman: Todd, I was—two questions. The first, regarding the new point system, I mean obviously it kind of plays against Shanghai Bobby and Violence in terms of where they would’ve been under the old system, but I’m wondering if maybe on another hand, it could be potentially beneficial to Palace Malice or Verrazano in terms of the points being so back-loaded.
Todd Pletcher: I think there’s a number of effects from the point system and one of which I think we probably are seeing a little bit this weekend where you see some horses that perhaps would’ve maybe run in another one-turn race like the Swale are going ahead and jumping out into the Fountain of Youth or the Risen Star. And so we’re possibly seeing a change in the pace scenarios in some of these races where beforehand they might have rolled the dice and with the graded earnings been able to get into the Kentucky Derby without really having any two-turn experience. So I think that’s one, one immediate effect we’re seeing.
In some ways it’s not really different because if Verrazano or one of these horses that’s later developing Verrazano or Palace Malice were to come along and win the Risen Star and the Tampa Derby or the, their follow-up races, they were still going to have plenty of graded earnings to get in so I don’t know that part of it has really changed. We definitely see the change in some of the pace scenarios and could see a major change in the pace scenario for the Derby itself, but that remains to be seen.
So I think like everyone else, we’re seeing how it’s going to affect the Derby itself, but it’s interesting if nothing else.
Jay Privman: Then my second question is with having horses pointing to different races at different tracks, when you have a race, for instance, like the Risen Star this week where you’re getting horses coming in from all different regions, do you feel that you can sort of go to school on a race like that and get a feel for what regions may have the most depth or where you’re horses stack up more so nationally than they would if it’s just a race with everybody from the same spot?
Todd Pletcher: Yes, I think it certainly tells you a lot. I think there’s been some criticism of the California crop, but that seems to be getting stronger by the day. Super Ninety Nine was very impressive yesterday, I thought. I think like every year it’s—each region has some very good horses and it’s going to be most interesting when they’ll all meet at Churchill. And to me the one thing that I think goes overlooked a lot is this huge, huge influence on the outcome of the Kentucky Derby is the racing surface at Churchill. And it can be so peculiar if we see a surface like we did for the Breeders’ Cup in 2011, there’s a lot of horses that just hated that surface and I ran quite a few of them myself, but, sometimes it doesn’t matter how good you are or how well-prepared you are or how many points you have. If you show up and the Churchill surface is in one of its quirky states—and we’re going to have a new track superintendent this year, to me that’s the huge x-factor in the whole thing and there’s a lot of horses that just will not handle that surface and you’ve got to get lucky in that regard.
Jennie Rees: Yes, Todd, I believe there’s 15 races left that offer 50 or 100 points to win. Would you anticipate—what number of those races would you anticipate having a horse in them. I’m thinking there’s two in Santa Anita and the Sunland Derby. Are there any races that you would maybe discount for logistics or whatever?
Todd Pletcher: I think you’d have to look long and hard about going all the way to California from a Florida base. I haven’t ruled it out, but I would say that’s the most unlikely scenario. I would definitely leave with someone to race in the equation. A lot of it depends on how the transportation works out and if you can get there easily; and if you can get out of there easily then that makes some of these races more or less attractive. But the good thing with what’s going on now, (Inaudible) flies into a lot of those areas and it makes getting to places like the Fair Grounds and Oaklawn and even Sunland and to New York from Florida pretty easy; and if that’s the case then I would say all of those races are in the mix.
Jennie Rees: But would you say definitely Arkansas, New York, Kentucky, Florida, let’s see, Louisiana. Every race from now on out, would you expect to have a horse in it?
Todd Pletcher: I think there is that possibility. I don’t know for sure that we’ll check off every one, but we could be involved in most of them.
Dick Downey: I had a couple of questions. First, is Delhomme still being pointed to the Rebel? And second, when you send out a pair of horses to work in company and they break off like side-by-side, can you share with us your thought process on which of those horses should be on the inside and which on the outside and why you do it that way?
Todd Pletcher: On the first question, Delhomme is still a possibility for the Rebel. We thought he had a very good work on Sunday and the Rebel is one of the races that Elliott Walden and I have kicked around as early as the day and, it’s in the mix. It’s kind of a little further away than we ideally like it so we’re looking at some other considerations in between now and then, but right now it’s safe to say that the Rebel is still the most likely first race back for Delhomme.
As far as when we work horses in company and we do that a lot—I would say probably even 5% of our breezes are done in tandem; two horses side-by-side generally. As far as who goes on the inside, a lot of times that’s dictated by just an experience level; sometimes you want to put horses on the inside to get them used to that. Sometimes we’ll just flip-flop them from work to work; one of the inside this week, one on the outside the next week just to change the experience, but a lot of it goes into it, as well, sort of who’s the most likely pace setter and who is going to put down the correct kind of fractions and some of that goes along with the horse and some of that goes along with the rider who’s on the horse and my confidence in their ability to put down the proper pace at the breeze.
Richard Rosenblatt: You’ve talked about most of your top prospects right now, but you haven’t mentioned much about Shanghai Bobby. Can you just talk about him coming off of his workout a few days ago, his first work since his race, and kind of your plans leading up to the Florida Derby with him?
Todd Pletcher: Well, I thought he ran extremely well in the Holy Bull. It shows me that he’s maintained his two-year-old form; actually moved forward a bit and I thought he handled Holy Bull extremely well. It was a good effort. He seemed to come out of the race physically well. I thought he was a little bit tired for the first week or so following the race, but now his energy level’s come back and it’s been very good. It’s just getting his training back, serious training back underway on Sunday at a nice, easy half-mile in :49 and 3 and came out of it really well. So from this point to the Florida Derby he’ll basically be on a weekly work schedule that we’ll start to intensify as we get a little closer to the race.
Jim Mulvihill: I know you’re also bringing the morning-line favorite for the Rachel Alexandra here, that’s Unlimited Budget. Can you tell us how she has been training and what your expectations are for her and her first start of the year?
Todd Pletcher: Well, she’s been training very well. She’s a filly that we’ve always thought a lot since the time we bought her in the March OBS sale last year. She’s a big scopey filly that being a daughter Street Sense we felt like would be later coming along, so we took our time bringing her in. She ran to our expectations in her first start and the one thing that we hadn’t really planned out at that point was running her back in 15 days in the Demoiselle, but she ran so well and she came out of it so well that Mike Repole and I decided to take a chance and do that and we were fortunate it paid off and she was able to overcome less than ideal circumstances to do that. I think it’s a tribute to her quality and her ability to run a route of ground. So we brought her down here with a race around this time in mind and I felt like the Rachel Alexandra fit her schedule very well. And she’s a filly that has grown up and filled out nicely and we expect her to come back and perform well.
Jim Gluckson: Okay, great. Todd, thanks so much for joining us today on the call and answering questions in our first call of the year. Todd, good luck to you in the Fountain of Youth and, of course, in the Risen Star this weekend and down the road.
Todd Pletcher: Thank you very much.
Jim Gluckson: Todd Pletcher, everyone. Thank you. We’ll now move on in a minute here. We’re going to go next to Gary Stevens who’ll be joining us in a little bit; and why don’t we get set for that? Gary will be our next guest.
This is an extraordinary season. Gary was returning to the races after a seven-year absence. He is starting—he started 2013 excellently winning on this year already with three stakes races that Gary has won. And he’ll be going—he actually just, let me back up for a second—he won the Santa Maria Stakes just over the weekend with Great Hot. Gary was inducted into Horseracing’s Hall of Fame in 1998. He’s won the Kentucky Derby three times aboard Winning Colors in 1988, Thunder Gulch in 1995 and Silver Charm in 1997. And just to tell you how extraordinary that is, only three other men have won more derbies than that; Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack won five each, and Bill Shoemaker won four. And Gary will be—his last Derby was in 1995 aboard Noble Causeway, finishing 14th in that Derby. And Gary will be riding Proud Strike in the Risen Star coming up on Saturday.
Jim Gluckson: Gary, Jim Gluckson here in New York. Welcome to our call today.
Gary Stevens: Thank you very much, Jim. Appreciate it.
Jim Gluckson: Great, Gary, congratulations on your excellent return. I just wanted— I think we should just start and discuss the experience. This must be exhilarating for you coming back. Start talking, if you would, just about your plans for the come back and some of the obstacles that you had to overcome to get off to this great start.
Gary Stevens: Well, obstacle number one as far as the critics, you know I’m getting to turn 50 years old. I knew that I was going to be under the microscope. You’re always under the microscope in this sport regardless of what you’ve done the day before, let alone seven years prior to. And, you know, I had thought about this through midway last summer and I had a plan that I put in place and tried to execute it and really didn’t know how things were going to turn out, what the expectation was going to be and it’s been overwhelming. Unexpected and I’m just honored to be back riding the type of horses for the people that I’m riding for and to get a phone call to go in and ride a colt like Proud Strike in the Risen Star is beyond my biggest dreams.
Jim Gluckson: Well, you talk about Proud Strike a little bit here. This is a son—this horse has broke its maiden at the Fairgrounds on January 12th by seven lengths at a one and one-sixteenth mile race. Can you talk a little bit about him from what you know?
Gary Stevens: Well, I’ve watched Oliver Grace who’s obviously talked with Scott Blasi. Actually before he even broke his maiden, he showed me a picture on his phone that Steve had sent him. He said, “This is what you want a colt doing just before they run.” It was a picture of him laying down taking a nap shortly before they tacked him up to go over. And, you know, his first out was a sprint race at Churchill going seven furlongs. So, I think that’s important for educating these horses a little bit, getting some tactical speed and he came back in a rat race on November 24th at Churchill and ran a good second against Bradester and he didn’t get a lot of respect. He was rested and obviously that maiden breaker at Fair Grounds was huge, won it by 7-1/2 and he did it well within himself sitting just off the pace and solid tractions that day. And, you know, he’s been progressing with every one of his races and when I got the phone call I was pretty excited. And he looks like a colt that has just taken huge steps up with every race; and if he takes a big step off of that maiden breaker then, you know, it’s good enough.
Jim Gluckson: Very good. Gary, I just want to jump back for a second on the come back and your conditioning. You observed in your career riders like Laffit Pincay and Bill Shoemaker riding very well later in their careers. Did you talk to Laffit or talk to other riders, consulting people about making the comeback?
Gary Stevens: Yes, I talked to, talked to Laffit. Most importantly I talked to my big brother, Scott who’s still active riding at Turf Paradise and he said, “Man, if you’re feeling it,” he said, “what else are you going to do? ” He said, “Just do it,” and I talked to Pat Day; I talked to Jerry Bailey and I think when they saw that I was 100% into this and it wasn’t—the last thing I wanted was people thinking that, “All right, here he goes again. What kind of show is he putting on?” I didn’t want this to be a show at the carnival. I wanted people to know that I was serious about this comeback and if I couldn’t be a shadow of what I once was then that wouldn’t—that wasn’t good enough. I wanted to come back, if not as good, better than I was the last five years that I rode. And you know, I won’t tell any stories. I was riding in a lot of pain the last three or four years I was riding and people have commented that they think I look better than I did when—well, that pain takes a toll on you and you tend to think a little clearer when you’re not dealing with the pain. And, fortunately, right now I feel better than I did the last five years I was riding when I was active before.
Jim Gluckson: Was the pain primarily in your knees?
Gary Stevens: Yes. I mean, I think between burnout caused from the pain and different things that—it all really started in 2003 when things got real bad for me with the fall at Arlington Park when Storming Home tore me up pretty good and I don’t think that I ever fully recuperated from that. Hindsight is 20/20, but, you know, I wish I would’ve probably taken six, seven months off after that—off that spill and, you know, assess things then.. Biggest regret I think an athlete has is announcing the retirement when you don’t fully mean it.
Marcus Hersh: Gary, I just looked up the stats. Looks like you’ve ridden 16 times at Fair Grounds, very limited exposure. It seems like a lot of different kind of track than out West. Are there adaptations you’re going to be looking to make for the way you go about your business this weekend?
Gary Stevens: No, I don’t think so. I mean you need a pace to ride at Fair Grounds. We all know it’s the longest stretch in America and you look down that lane at Fair Grounds on a horse that’s already breathing fire and it’s a long ways home if they’re tired. One interesting thing I should point out Marcus, is this track has changed out here. Racing has changed out here in Southern California. We’re dealing more with an East Coast type race track and I think that we saw that at the Breeders’ Cup last year that pacing is a virtue. It’s a demanding track out here at Santa Anita right now but a good safe racetrack. I think the tide has changed a little bit as far as speed goes. You’re not supposed to be able to go 44 and change for the half and keep running; if you go too fast you pay the price and that’s Fair Grounds.
Jennie Rees: Yes, Gary, you said about a month ago that you’d have to be one to nine to actually ride in the Derby. That you hoped to ride the preps but that your loyalty was to NBC and your commitments there. As you win more stakes and, you know, now that you’re going to, you know, be in one of these 50-point preps, is that going to be a little harder to stick to if you get on a live horse?
Gary Stevens: Well, Jennie, that’s a great question, and, you know, I feel fortunate to be part of the NBC family; it’s not an easy family to get into and once a member, always a member. And I’ve had talks with Rob Highland, our producer and the whole deal I haven’t changed. If I actually think I’ve got the legitimate chance to win the Kentucky Derby, I’m going to be out on a horseback and NBC will be riding with me. And I think that we’re in a position right now that that opportunity is there. And I don’t want to say yes or no because it’s like putting the cart in front of the horse and—but I’m very optimistic and, I’ve got the support of NBC whichever way—whichever decision winds up being made and the horses at the end of the day are going to make the decision for me.
Jennie Rees: I mean you’d be the ultimate embedded reporter. I mean I would think NBC would think that’s, you know, pretty cool.
Gary Stevens: Yes, I mean the difficult thing is I don’t think people realize the prep work that goes into a production of like the Kentucky Derby or even the prep races. The meetings, the rehearsals and whatnot and it’s not just one day, three hours of television. It’s all week long of meetings and rehearsals and we all know horse racing, it’s scripted that show; but we usually wind up throwing out the script about halfway through because you never know what’s going to happen in horseracing. But it would be almost impossible to try and do two jobs on the day. In other words if I was working—focused on riding in the Kentucky Derby and preparing to do a national worldwide telecast, that would be impossible. You’ve got to do one or the other and the decision will have to be made I’m saying at least a month before the Kentucky Derby.
Jennie Rees: And then it would be hard to know about what you might be riding, what could happen in that month.
Gary Stevens: Well, one thing I’ve learned about with the Kentucky Derby, I mean, back in 1995 I won the Santa Anita Derby on a horse named Larry the Legend that I thought was going to be the favorite for the Derby and he wound up getting hurt and never raced again and I wind up picking up Thunder Gulch and winning the Derby anyway. So, you learn to keep all your options open leading into the first Saturday in May.
Danny Brewer: Listen, the time as an analyst, has that helped you in your comeback, you feel?
Gary Stevens: I think so. You know, as far as I really don’t (inaudible) myself for an actual race any different than I did when was riding before, but I may go a little more in-depth. And for whatever reason, I’m seeing things from a different perspective when the race is actually going on and it’s a positive thing, definitely. I think that I’m a little bit more calculating than I had been and maybe that just comes with age and experience, and, actually getting the passion back that I hadn’t had for a long time. I feel like I did when I first started riding. I mean, every race I ride is a gift and I’m taking every race as a gift and it feels good to be back out there. So the mind is clear and, yes, I guess in a way being—playing my role for the last seven years has helped in my race riding.
Danny Brewer: Okay, Michael Jordan, he won three in a row and he left; and now you’re back. You won three; now you’re back. Are you going to win three more derbies, you think? Is that in the cards for you, Gary?
Gary Stevens: If I can ride one more Kentucky Derby with a legitimate chance. I mean, and that’s what I’ve said, you know, leading up to this point in time, it’s that time is flying right now and we’re halfway through February and that first Saturday in May will be upon us pretty quick. And if I can go out on that racetrack and know that I have a legitimate shot of winning, I’ve ridden in enough derbies. I don’t need to go out there for the scenery. I just as soon set up the booth and give a good perspective of the races rather than going out there and saying, “Okay, I’m just going to be an also-run.” It’s a pretty good seat that I have up there and saying that I’m training like nobody else. If one of these colts and perhaps StrikeI will be the one that gets me in the winner’s circle for a fourth time.
Marc Doche: Hey, Gary, how much weight did you have to drop to get back into riding shape and how has the diet subsequently been affecting you as you’re riding right now?
Gary Stevens: Well, when I went into my fitness program up in Seattle I weighed 133 pounds and I walked out of the jock’s room yesterday afternoon weighing 114 pounds. I’m tacking 117 and I can honestly say that with the nutrition and diets and workouts, I’m probably fitter than I had ever been through my career.
Marc Doche: And then you’ve also had a good run the last couple of weeks, but how frustrating was it at the beginning to have so many second-place finishes?
Gary Stevens: I was frustrated and especially when you’re riding good races and people are saying, “Well these horses will come back and win,” and you’re telling yourself, “Man, I’ve got every split, every break that I needed and they just weren’t good enough.” You know, not that I was counting, but the 12 seconds I’d run after my first win and leading up with my win on Slim Shady, it was very frustrating. I’m like what do I got to do because horses were running through the bridle and I felt probably running the best races of their lives and to get them to repeat those types of races when they come back is not an easy thing to do. So you know you’re up against it and you know that people, the statisticians are keeping track and obviously it’s more frustrating in that note than actually riding the races.
You’re always happy when you go out there and a horse tries for you and you know when they’re running underneath you and you’ve done everything right, but still at the end of the day, a lot of people, the only thing they look at that is the percentages at the bottom of the Daily RacingForm footnotes.
Marc Doche: Has any part of this success surprised you at all or did you expect that you would be able to get to this level so quickly?
Gary Stevens: No, I didn’t know what kind of support I was going to get. And like I said, I knew that there were going to be a lot of people that were skeptical and wondering how serious I was taking this. And I think they’re seeing I’m taking it dead serious and I didn’t know the response was going to be as overwhelming as what it’s been, and I’m just very respectful of the reception I’ve got and the opportunities that these people have given me.
John Pricci: Hey, Gary. You know, so strange question, but, you know, things happen for a reason they say and what if now we were in the third very successful season of HBO’s Luck? Would the idea of getting back on horseback like ever occur to you? I mean what about that?
Gary Stevens: Well, the acting business, the Hollywood business is very parallel with the horseracing business and it’s pretty much what can you do for me tomorrow and not what you did yesterday. And, you know, it was a jolt to all of us, the cast, crew and all of us with HBO when we were canceled on very short notice. And we were having such fun and to film the first episode of the second season and seeing where things were going and reading the scripts all the way through episode number eight of the second season, it destroyed a lot of us for a short period of time and there’s still grief in it. And, you know, I think the thing that hurts the most is a lot of people read into lots of things that if they would’ve seen develop and come around, I think that even the old-school horsemen would’ve appreciated where it was headed. So not to be able to show that was discouraging, but no, I—if Luck was still rolling, I probably wouldn’t be back in the saddle right now, but it was kind of giving me my fix, too. I felt like I was back in the game, riding races and I felt like I was lacking something when it disappeared.
John Pricci: That’s a great answer. Thank you very much, sir.
Jim Gluckson: Gary, I think we covered the gamut here from your comeback to Michael Jordan to Luck. Congratulations on your return and thank you for joining us today.
Gary will be riding Proud Strike in the Risen Star on Saturday and, again, Gary, thanks for joining us today and best of luck to you.
Gary Stevens: Thanks, Jim. Thank you.
Jim Gluckson: Thanks everyone. That concludes today’s first call of the Road to the Triple Crown series. The next call will be on Tuesday, March 5th at the usual time of 1 p.m. Eastern