Kentucky Derby

Small Barns Ready to Make Big Impact on Kentucky Derby Trail

Bolt d'Oro training at Santa Anita (credit: Zoe Metz Photography)

Many people in racing are becoming more and more frustrated that a select few trainers get the majority of the horses, while hundreds of other trainers struggle year after year to fill barns.

The frustration is understandable. A major debate in our industry right now is the existence of these so-called “super barns” and whether they are good or bad for the sport, and this seems to be more of a trend with each passing year.

Credit has to be given to the trainers of “super barns,” as they have built their businesses to an incredible level, but their assistants deserve much of it. For example, Steve Asmussen may be the trainer of name when his horses run at Remington Park, but Darren Fleming is the guy in charge of that operation. Asmussen has said several times in public interviews that his assistants are the key to his success.

As we head towards the Kentucky Derby trail, though, 2018 could be different. Three smaller outfits look like they could make a big impact: Mick Ruis (with Bolt d’Oro), Adam Kitchingman (with Greyvitos), and Jonathan Thomas (with Catholic Boy) are all poised to make noise with their talented colts.

One important late note to add to the article is the breaking news that Greyvitos had bone chips removed from his knee. While the injury isn’t thought to be serious, his impact on the Kentucky Derby trail is now in question. Kitchingman stated that it’s not out of the question for him to get back onto the trail at some point, but things will have to work perfectly.

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Before continuing, the article will mention the number of starters that each of the three highlighted trainers had in 2017. For comparison, here are some of the notable “super barn” Kentucky Derby trainers and their 2017 starts:

Steve Asmussen – 1,909

Todd Pletcher – 1,053

Chad Brown – 820

Bob Baffert – 313

Also know that the number of starts don’t tell the whole story. Each year, the top trainers (like the ones mentioned above) receive dozens and dozens of the best prospects for each upcoming season.

The horse most likely to take down the racing super powers (up to this point) has to be Bolt d’Oro – mainly because he already has, and he could end up being the 2-Year Old Horse of the Year when the awards are announced in a couple of weeks. After kicking off his career in a maiden special weight victory at Del Mar, Bolt d’Oro when straight to the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity, where he knocked off the Baffert-trained Zatter. He then went to Santa Anita for the Grade 1 FrontRunner for his first start around two turns, where he dominated his competition by multiple lengths, and once again, Baffert was second to Bolt d’Oro – this time with Solomini. The big-time trainers got their revenge in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, as Bolt d’Oro finished third behind Good Magic (for Brown) and Solomini. However, a poor trip cost him several lengths in that race, so there’s still plenty of hope for 2018, even in defeat.

Owner/trainer Ruis had 133 total starts in 2017, with a pair of 2-year-olds leading the way. Aside from Bolt d’Oro, a 2-year-old filly named One Fast Broad gave him more stakes success, with wins in the Golden State Juvenile Fillies and the Soviet Problem. Bolt d’Oro is still the best horse that Ruis has ever trained, having earned over $300,000 more than War Envoy, Ruis’ second-best horse earnings-wise. Ruis is a true rags-to-riches type of story, coming from a modest background before building a success scaffolding business and selling it for millions. With money to burn, he began owning and training horses in 2005, but success didn’t come easy and he had to put his dream on hold until returning 10 years later with a bigger bankroll. Since then, he’s enjoyed tremendous success, and much more could be on the way in 2018.

Bolt d’Oro and Ruis have company in Southern California, where another star colt is stabled in a smaller barn. Greyvitos recently took home the Springboard Mile at Remington Park from the 12 hole by open lengths for Kitchingman. Unlike Bolt d’Oro, Greyvitos was not an instant success. He finished eighth and third in his first two starts, yet he was still entered in the Grade 3 Bob Hope for his third race. Off at 19-1 odds, he shocked everyone with a very impressive wire-to-wire win, taking down Mourinho, a highly-regarded Baffert colt, in the process. It was very encouraging that Mourinho made a move on Greyvitos but could not make up ground on him in the stretch. In the Springboard Mile, Greyvitos took down Combatant, a well-regarded colt for Asmussen.

With the Springboard Mile behind him, Kitchingman set his sights on what he hopes will be a memorable 2018 after having just 77 starts last year. Though Kitchingman has been training horses longer than Ruis (getting his start in 2000), much like his counterpart, his Derby prospect is the best horse that he’s ever trained. The gray colt is already his second-highest money earner, a fact that should change after his next start, as he only trails Vikki’s Honor by about $4,000. Kitchingman has a keen eye for talent and finding value: the Australia native has been know to find cheap horses and improve them into profitable ventures. Greyvitos may end up being the best example, as the colt was “only” purchased for $100,000. That investment will have a chance to payout tenfold if he recovers from his recent operation and continues to progress.

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While Bolt d’Oro and Greyvitos duke it out on the west coast, you can’t forget about one particular small-barn horse on the east coast. Catholic Boy will be formidable for Thomas during the coming months on the Kentucky Derby trail. The More Than Ready colt debuted on the Gulfstream Park grass in a maiden special weight and was successful by 2 lengths. He was then immediately sent to stakes company at Saratoga, where he dominated his rivals in the Grade 3 With Anticipation Stakes. With a win over a loaded field at Saratoga, Catholic Boy tried his luck in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, where he was a solid fourth behind three horses that seem to have a big future. However, a switch to the dirt in the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes is what has everyone buzzing. His pedigree suggested that he would like the dirt, and he didn’t disappoint, dominating his rivals to win the Remsen by nearly 5 lengths.

For Thomas, 2017 marked his coming out party as far as head trainer goes. He had 71 starts on the year, winning an eye-catching 21 times. Catholic Boy is far and away the best horse that he’s ever trained on his own, and was also his first ever graded stakes winner, but Thomas is no stranger to fantastic horses. As a former assistant to both Pletcher and Christophe Clement, he’s learned from the best in the industry. The 37-year-old trainer spent over six years with Pletcher before leaving to go on his own about four years ago. At first, he had a limited number of starters because he spent more time breaking horses at Bridlewood Farms in Ocala, Florida, but if Catholic Boy is any indication, 2018 could be a massive year for the young up-and-comer.

Can these three non-“super barns” shake things up and take out the big boys? We’ve seen it done many times on the Kentucky Derby trail. There’s only so much that you can do when trying to win a big race; in the end, it comes down to the horse and its ability. California Chrome was not bred to be great, and he was also not in the hands of a super trainer, yet he nearly won the Triple Crown. These trainers have the same opportunities ahead of them, and for now, their horses look like they have a shot at giving their connections the ride of a lifetime. Here’s hoping that all three of these colts make it to the first Saturday in May.

Who doesn’t love a good underdog story?

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