“Those guys are great trainers and they’ve had a lot of success in the Triple Crown races of their generation, clearly the most of anyone, so it just shows how hard it is to get there,” said Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher, a former Lukas assistant who also looks to saddle five Derby contenders of his own this year. “I would certainly think they’d be back to the Derby scene soon.”
At the beginning of the season, early indications did not point to Pletcher taking the Derby trail without competition from his well-known forerunners. Zito was training 18 Triple Crown nominees, Baffert was close behind at 17, and Lukas rounded up the bunch with 13 when the early nomination process closed Jan. 31. By early April, however, as the smoke cleared from a blistering prep-race campaign, all three were left without a single contender on the Derby’s top twenty graded earnings list.
“Sometimes things just don’t pan out, and what can you do?” said Zito, who saddled two Kentucky Derby winners (Strike the Gold, 1991; Go for Gin, 1994). “I will tell you one thing, it’s not nice to be sitting out. I like to play. I don’t like to be on the bench.”
Saddling B Giles Brophy’s Thirty-Six Red, who finished ninth in 1990, Zito came along nine years after Lukas began the period of Derby power-players in 1981 with third-place finisher Partez, owned by Greene and Davis. Baffert made his debut in 1996 when Robert H. Walter’s Cavonnier and Chris McCarron finished second by a nose to Lukas’ third winner, Grindstone. For the next 11 years at least one – and usually all – of the three saddled a Derby starter. Between them, they sent out a total of 63 Derby contenders, winning 9 renewals of the Derby, 10 runnings of the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) and 7 editions of the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). Their starters have combined to earn more than $454,626,870 to date.
“I deal with them all at one point or another,” said well-known jockey agent Ron Anderson, who currently holds Garrett Gomez’s book and has represented Jerry Bailey, Gary Stevens, Chris Antley, and others over the years. “They’re icons in the business, visible anywhere in the country. You could be walking down the street with one of them in Duluth, Minnesota and someone would recognize them. In my mind, they’ve changed the direction of the Triple Crown – but don’t think they won’t be back. It’s an off year for them, and it’s a tough game, but I’m sure these guys will rally.”
Traditionally, in the months leading up to each Derby, the three trainers would command industry and media attention. Ever consummate showmen, they built their training empires around the pursuit of Thoroughbred racing’s greatest prize. What is the defining factor behind their popularity? According to Zito, their strongest collective point is a single-minded focus on their goals – and while personal strengths vary according to each trainer’s individuality, he also believes approachability is key.
“Definitely, the personalities have a lot to do with our popularity,” he said. “All three people you mentioned are sociable; we’re not uptight, we’re loose enough to talk to you. That’s no knock against trainers who are reserved because some people like that type of person handling their business, but I don’t think the three of us are that way. As far as the business end goes, we don’t lose sight of what we’re trying to accomplish, and we’re not going away. This just isn’t our time.”
Whether Lukas, Baffert, and Zito will be present on Derby day without starters remains to be seen. Baffert and Lukas did not return calls seeking comment for this article, and it is unknown whether they will attend the Derby. According to Zito, the decision to attend or skip the race is a tough call.
“I might have a horse or two running that day, so if I do, I guess I’m there. I don’t want to look like an idiot; I’ve had a lot of success, heck, I won the Derby twice! But it’s tough. If I don’t have a horse running in another race, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll watch it from the barn," he said.