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Horse Racing

‘A regular Joe’: Tim Yakteen steps in for suspended trainer Bob Baffert at Kentucky Derby

LOUISVILLE, KY. — The wall was bare, stripped of the familiar signs celebrating past triumphs.

There was no crowd outside, waiting to glimpse the next Kentucky Derby champion or to catch a word with the white-haired master of ceremonies. Barn 33 was home only to empty stalls and a few overturned red buckets, no longer the center of gravity for the most hyped event in American thoroughbred racing.

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As Thursday morning dawned two days before the running of the 148th Derby, this was the vacuum left by trainer Bob Baffert, barred from Churchill Downs because of medication violations, one of which cost him victory in last year’s race.

But Baffert, the most successful trainer in the history of the Triple Crown series, will be more than a ghostly presence around this year’s Derby. Two horses that he worked with until late March, Taiba and Messier, will be in the race with serious chances to win. They have prepared for the biggest run of their lives under Baffert’s former assistant, Tim Yakteen, and within the training structure Baffert created. They’re in Barn 37 rather than Barn 33, but other than that, the only component missing is Baffert himself.

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“I don’t think the horse is going to realize there’s much difference at all,” said NBC analyst and former Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey. “They’ve got the same groom, the same exercise rider, the same assistant trainer, the same veterinarian, the same farrier, practically everything is the same. Same food, same routine. … Tim Yakteen, the new trainer, will know exactly what they’ve done and is probably mimicking that, so I don’t think the horses are going to notice anything.”

Yakteen, 56, is a respected horseman with more than 250 wins and $12.2 million in earnings over the past 18 years, since he went on his own after apprenticeships under Baffert and fellow Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham. But he has never guided the types of talents that flow into Baffert’s barn every year. When Taiba and Messier finished one-two in the April 9 Santa Anita Derby, they pushed Yakteen to his first $1 million year as a trainer, and it’s only May.

“The reality in thoroughbred racing is there are a lot of trainers out there, a lot of them that, given an opportunity with a really good horse, can do a great job,” NBC analyst Randy Moss said. “Tim Yakteen has had some good horses, not Derby horses, but he’s had some good horses in his career and has done a good job with them.”

Baffert, who is not allowed to communicate with Yakteen about Taiba and Messier, has emphasized his trust in his former assistant.

“I know they are in good hands,” he said in a statement when the horses transferred to Yakteen’s barn in late March.

For his part, Yakteen said he has enjoyed his first week in the glaring Derby spotlight. He had attended the race as an assistant to Whittingham but never as a lead actor. Though not given to expansive, Baffert-style answers, he seemed delighted Thursday to talk about the horses and grateful for the opportunity, no matter how it came about.

“I’m not a celebrity,” he said. “I’m just a regular trainer, a regular Joe. There hasn’t been any change in routine. The only change in routine is that I’m here at Churchill.”

When asked on a conference call last week whether Taiba and Messier’s triumphs will be considered his or Baffert’s, Yakteen said: “I don’t know how to answer that question. All I know is that the horses are in my barn, and I’m moving forward with them.”

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Mike Smith, who will ride Taiba and who rode 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify for Baffert, said the forced switch in trainers has not changed much from his standpoint.

“Not really,” he said Thursday morning as he posed for pictures with fans on the backside. “I’ve worked a lot with Tim, ridden a lot for him throughout the years. If anyone’s going to take over, Tim knows the routine, and he’s a great horseman in his own right. It’s fun for him.”

As contenders, Taiba and Messier come into the Derby with a greater air of mystery than horses such as Zandon, Epicenter and Smile Happy, who faced off in prep races in Louisiana and Kentucky.

“I haven’t been overly impressed,” Smile Happy’s trainer, Kenny McPeek, said after watching the former Baffert horses at Churchill Downs this week.

If Messier, an 8-1 third choice in the morning line, had won the Santa Anita Derby, he might have vied to be the favorite at Churchill Downs. Instead, he could not hold off his stablemate, Taiba, who thrust himself into the Derby conversation with a brilliant performance.

Taiba, a 12-1 sixth choice in the morning line, had never run before March, though he sold for an eye-popping $1.7 million as a 2-year-old. If he were to win, he would upset traditional notions of how much experience matters in building a Derby horse.

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Justify had run just three times going into the 2018 Derby and also used a brilliant victory in the Santa Anita Derby as his springboard. Smith sees similarities between the two horses.

“We all know it’s asking a lot,” the 56-year-old jockey said. “You would hope his talent can overcome it. He’s quick, so he’ll be forwardly placed, and maybe you can turn it into only one or two in front of you. So then it kind of takes the inexperience part out of it. He’s just got to have the foundation, which is what I’m more worried about. … He’s extremely talented, and sometimes, that talent will take you that extra eighth of a mile. It can certainly be done.”

“We want to see if there’s greatness there,” Yakteen said.

He added that Messier’s second-place finish at Santa Anita was no discredit to him. “He ran huge in defeat,” he said. “He did all the heavy lifting early in that race. … I’m looking for Messier to take that next step. Fingers crossed, he’s trained great.”

Both horses have made Yakteen’s job easy since he stepped in for Baffert.

“Just straightforward,” he said.

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148th Kentucky Derby

Saturday

Post time: 6:57 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4 (coverage begins at 2:30 p.m.)


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