Like so many of us, Tommy Drury had allowed the grand visions of his youth to settle into acceptance of a more practical reality.
He enjoyed his work at the Skylight Training Center in Goshen, Kentucky, helping young racehorses achieve maturity and rehabilitating those who’d fallen off track. He valued the long-term bonds he’d formed with horsemen around his native Louisville. So what if he’d never train the next Secretariat? That was the fantasy of a kid reared in the shadow of Churchill Downs. He was now living the reality of a man approaching age 50 in an unforgiving industry.
Then Bruce Lunsford, one of those horse owners with whom Drury maintained a bond, had a problem. Lunsford wanted to move a 3-year-old named Art Collector away from the barn of trainer Joe Sharp. But he wasn’t sure what to do with the promising colt, a dilemma that would only grow more vexing when the coronavirus pandemic threw the racing world into chaos. Could Drury help him out, at least temporarily?
“Bruce was really high on this horse,” Drury recalled. “And after the first couple breezes, I think we all agreed. I don’t know if I was thinking Kentucky Derby at the time or Preakness, but we certainly thought a lot of him.”
The arrangement led to one victory, then another, then another, in the $600,000 Blue Grass Stakes. Now, Drury is on his way to Baltimore for the Preakness, a race he’s only ever watched on television. He’s in it with the 5-2 second choice in the morning line. And he’s going up against the most famous man in his profession, seven-time Preakness winner Bob Baffert, who will saddle the race favorite, Authentic.
Drury is living out the fantasy he thought belonged only to that 18-year-old version of himself who obtained a training license way back in 1991.
He believed he would know what to do with a horse as talented as Art Collector. But he did not know if he’d ever get to show it.
“I always joked that eventually, one of these horses was going to fall through the cracks and get to me,” he said.
“He’s the guy who’s asked to get horses ready before they’re sent to other trainers for races like this,” said NBC analyst Randy Moss. “Now, because of COVID-19, he was given the opportunity to hang onto this horse. It’s become such a great story.”
Of course, this is horse racing, so there’s some shattering bad luck weaved into the tale as well. Drury thought he would saddle Art Collector for the Derby, a race he naturally prized above all others. As a kid, he waited hungrily for the first Saturday in May, anticipating that special week when horse racing seemed to be on television every evening. He was set to play local hero in a town where leading horsemen still loom large. Until, less than a week before post time, Art Collector showed discomfort in his left front foot.
“There wasn’t a lot to it,” Drury recalled. “He grabbed himself, and we saw it as soon as he got back to the barn.”
Drury gave it a day, but the colt’s nicked heel still seemed awfully sensitive. The trainer could probably have thrown a bar shoe on it and soldiered forth, but that did not fit the ethic he’d developed over 29 years in the game.
“At that point, it would not have been fair to walk him over there and ask him to run in the biggest race of his career,” Drury said. “The biggest responsibility I have as Art Collector’s trainer is, I have to be his voice in these situations. So it wasn’t a big conversation. I told Bruce what I thought and he said, ‘We need to sit this one out and shoot for the next one.’”
Moss thought of Drury immediately when he heard Art Collector had been scratched.
“It had to be a crushing blow,” the NBC analyst said. “But because of how long he’s had in the business, he’s seen all the disappointments that go along with training racehorses, and you’re almost inured to something like that when you’ve seen it so often.”
Even as sympathetic texts flooded in from other horsemen who’d experienced crushing disappointments — haven’t they all? — Drury put the injury in perspective.
“I can’t think of another word, but you almost become de-sensitized to it,” he said. “You’re let down so much — horses don’t get into races or you don’t get the trip you want. I don’t think people understand how hard it is to win a horse race or just to get a horse into a race and have him healthy.”
With a month to go before the Preakness, he would still have time to prepare Art Collector for a Triple Crown race, a possibility he never could have fathomed at this time last year.
He thinks back to his youth, tagging along with his father, Tom Sr., who galloped horses for other trainers and sometimes worked with one or two of his own, usually rehabilitation cases. The world of the Triple Crown is so far from those knock-around days. Heck, he waited 29 years just to win his first graded stakes, the July 11 Blue Grass, which Art Collector took by 3½ lengths. When Drury looked at his phone the next day, he had 312 congratulatory texts from friends and associates who understood the length of his journey.
“Tommy’s just, he’s matured just beyond belief,” Lunsford said. “Even though I’ve known him for 20 years and he’s trained a lot of horses for me, he’s handled all of this challenge as well as a man can expect to.”
So no, a spot of bad luck before the Derby was not going to ruin Drury’s year.
“The Preakness is one of the most historic races in the world,” he said. “Knowing that it was four weeks away was probably what kind of saved me from a major letdown. I knew I had this race to fall back on.”
Art Collector breezed “phenomenally” during final preparations at Churchill Downs, and analysts agree he has the best shot to knock off Baffert’s Derby champion, Authentic, at Pimlico Race Course.
“I know we have our work cut out for us,” Drury said. “But I don’t think I’d trade places with anybody.”
The trainer turned 49 the day after the Derby and knows Art Collector could change the trajectory of his career. Already, owners have given him greater latitude to make purchases at yearling sales. But the meaning of this run goes beyond dollars and cents.
“He’s absolutely changed my life as a whole,” Drury said. “I’ve been doing this since I was a kid, and you always ask yourself in the back of your mind, ‘Could I train a horse like that?’ And I think he’s proven we’re capable. I always kind of struggle with the words to express how that feels.”
145TH PREAKNESS STAKES
At Pimlico Race Course
Oct. 3, 6:45 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 4 (coverage begins at 4:30 p.m.)
Post; Horse; Jockey; Odds
1; Excession; Sheldon Russell; 30-1
2; Mr. Big News; Gabriel Saez; 12-1
3; Art Collector; Brian Hernandez Jr.; 5-2
4; Swiss Skydiver; Robby Albarado; 6-1
5; Thousand Words; Florent Geroux; 6-1
6; Jesus' Team; Jevian Toledo; 30-1
7; NY Traffic; Horacio Karamanos; 15-1
8; Max Player; Paco Lopez; 15-1
9; Authentic; John Velazquez; 9-5
10; Pneumatic; Joe Bravo; 20-1
11; Liveyourbeastlife; Trevor McCarthy; 30-1