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It's now trendy for horse trainers to value rest over reps

It's now trendy for horse trainers to value rest over reps
Trainer Todd Pletcher talks about his two Kentucky Derby hopefuls, Outwork and Destin, outside his barn at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., Sunday, May 1, 2016. (Garry Jones / AP)

LOUISVILLE, KY. — He won the biggest race of his young career in track-record time and bested another Kentucky Derby hopeful in the process.

In a previous generation, Destin would have followed his triumphant Tampa Bay Derby with another prep race a few weeks later. The rugged schedule would have been deemed best for his fitness and his racing acumen.

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But in 2016, this contender for Saturday's 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby has not run for two months. His trainer, Todd Pletcher, and his co-owner, Steve Davison, have studied the data, and they believe a long rest is best for a horse such as Destin to match or surpass his top performance.

Though Pletcher and Davison's handling of Destin is the most extreme example in this year's field, scant prep schedules are a growing reality for the contenders in America's most prestigious race.

When American Pharoah won the first Triple Crown in 37 years last June, he did so as a far less experienced racer than most of his predecessors. But his five-start resume entering the Derby was hardly an anomaly among his peers. Top trainers seem to work their most gifted Derby hopefuls more lightly every year. And the lack of racing history makes the 20-horse fields more difficult than ever to handicap.

"It's not just the fans and horse players who don't know much about these horses," said NBC analyst Randy Moss. "The trainers and jockeys don't either. Back in the day, horses came to the Kentucky Derby having experienced so many of the things that can happen on a track. But it's night and day now, the comfort level we see with trainers bringing their horses to major races off of long layoffs."

Secretariat ran 12 times before he started in the Kentucky Derby, including three races in the six weeks before his big day at Churchill Downs.

Affirmed ran 13 times before his Derby victory, including four races between March 8 and April 16 of his 3-year-old year.

Even in subsequent generations, champions such as Sunday Silence and Smarty Jones generally ran three prep races in rapid succession before resting three weeks or a month prior to the Derby.

This year, by contrast, Derby favorite Nyquist is considered one of the most battle-tested horses in the field based on seven career starts, just two of them as a 3-year-old.

Barbaro's trainer, Mike Matz, recalls how his decision to rest his horse five weeks before the Derby was treated as heresy just 10 years ago.

"I got criticized quite a bit for waiting," Matz said recently. "But the people I trusted said if you think you're doing the right thing for the horse, do it. I had just seen so many horses who didn't have anything left by the time of the Derby."

Though he had started just fives times coming in, Barbaro scorched the field of 20 by 6 ½ lengths and helped usher in a new era of lighter scheduling for the most gifted 3-year-olds. Big Brown, Mine That Bird, Animal Kingdom and Orb would all win off five weeks' rest or more in subsequent years.

Today's leading trainers say it's not a universal trend but more of a case-by-case phenomenon.

For example, Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen will saddle two solid contenders in this year's Derby—Creator and Gun Runner.

Gun Runner has not started since his victory in the March 26 Louisiana Derby. Creator, meanwhile, has run four times this year, most recently on April 16 when he won the Arkansas Derby.

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Gun Runner's talent was evident from early on, and he seemed to improve so much just from his workouts that Asmussen decided he did not need the grind of another prep race. He did not care that no horse has gone straight from the Louisiana Derby to victory at Churchill Downs, a fact old-school handicappers have gleefully pointed out in recent weeks.

"At the race track, it's always, 'I've never heard that before,'" Asmussen said. " And it's like, well, stick around, you will."

With Creator, he saw a late charger who did not expend as much energy to run competitively and who seemed to improve his focus with each race. That was a horse who needed to be scheduled aggressively.

"It's a very individual case-by-case basis," Asmussen said. "If you flipped it around, how much Gun Runner does, if he had the racing schedule of Creator, he'd be past his best."

Davison said the scheduling of Destin was also very much an individual decision. "We're not looking to set any trends," he said.

The colt had run once a month from December to March, and his victory gave him enough qualifying points that he'd make the Derby field without running another prep. Pletcher and Davison considered the April 9 Blue Grass Stakes but were dissuaded by a 14-horse field and a bad weather forecast.

Davison consulted his friend and fellow owner Elliott Walden, who had brought Carpe Diem to the 2015 Derby off a victory in the Blue Grass Stakes, only to watch his beautiful strider fail to fire in a 10th-place finish at Churchill Downs.

"He kind of felt like the Blue Grass gutted Carpe Diem a little bit, and maybe they didn't have a fresh horse last year," Davison said. "It's such a subtle thing. It's not like the horse is drooping around. Some of the effects of these races are impossible to see."

Pletcher trained Carpe Diem as well, and the colt was not his first highly touted entry to seem tired in the Derby. Conversely, he has guided horses to a number of big victories off of extended rest. Liam's Map, for example, won last year's Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile after an eight-week break.

"We just felt like sometimes, our horses run well fresh, and that should apply to the Kentucky Derby just as much as any other race," said Pletcher, one of the nation's top few trainers by any measure.

Ultimately, the whole team behind Destin agreed on the long break.

"He may run good. He may run bad. And either way, I don't know whether we'll have the answer that we did the right thing or not," Davison said.

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