Tim Yakteen, by his own admission, has been handed a lottery ticket. Two lottery tickets, in fact. But collecting on them is only part of the dilemma. He also deserves to get credit if he cashes them.
Yakteen was given possession of two outstanding 3-year-old colts and told to do two things in six weeks — get them to the Kentucky Derby and then win it. He took care of the first part when Taiba and Messier finished first and second in the Santa Anita Derby. He’ll find out about the second part on Saturday.
Yakteen took over the horses from Bob Baffert when the hall of fame trainer was banned for two years by Churchill Downs and then suspended for 90 days by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. It was the result of a medication positive on last year’s Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit, since disqualified. The cases are in litigation.
In the minds of some, however, Baffert will get the credit if the horses win and Yakteen will get the blame if they lose.
Wayne Lukas, who has won the Derby four times, told the Louisville Courier-Journal last week: “I think no matter how those horses run, they’ll be Bob’s. Now, the general public, a lot of them, won’t know the difference. [But] all the horse people will know they are Bob’s.”
Randy Moss, a horse racing analyst for NBC, also hinted at Yakteen being a placeholder on a national media call this week.
“And [there are] two horses trained by a guy named Tim Yakteen, who is I guess you could say is subbing in a way for a trainer that’s famously not here at this Kentucky Derby, Bob Baffert,” Moss said.
Yakteen’s low-key approach and penchant for succinct answers are the antithesis of Baffert, who enjoys interacting with the public and holding court wherever he is.
When asked about Lukas’ comments, Yakteen brushed it aside. “I don’t know how to answer that,” he said. “All I know is the horses are in my barn and I’m moving forward with them.”
Yakteen is considered a very good horseman who has never been on the national stage as the front man. He was formerly an assistant for Baffert and Charlie Whittingham before striking out on his own in 2004.
“I love riding for Tim,” said jockey Mike Smith, who will be aboard Taiba on Saturday. “He’s one of those guys you feel really good about and confident when you are riding for him. His horses always look great, they are always in great condition. We’ve won a couple Grade 1s together. So, we’ve got some history.”
Baffert hired Yakteen twice and there is a bond between them.
“All I know is the horses are in my barn and I’m moving forward with them.”
— Trainer Tim Yakteen
“He wins races and his horses look well,” Baffert said last month when he announced some of his horses would go to Yakteen’s barn. “This is a good opportunity for him. He’s never had these kind of horses in his barn. I really trust him. That’s the main thing.
“This is a chance to be career changing. You hate to lose the horses but the horse makes the trainer.”
To Baffert’s point, there is no shortage of good trainers in horse racing. All they are missing is the right horse and some luck.
“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,” 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.”
Many have the mistaken impression that Yakteen is handling things just the way Baffert would. He raised some eyebrows among traditionalists when he said he would work Taiba only once between the Santa Anita Derby and Kentucky Derby. Baffert always had two speed works with his horses during the same period.
But on Wednesday, he switched up the game plan and worked the colt three furlongs.
“Nothing special,” Yakteen said Wednesday. “It was just what we wanted. I’m following the same pattern we used coming up to the Santa Anita Derby. He blew out there, too.”
Many of those in racing are born into the sport, but not Yakteen. He spent his first 18 years in Germany.
“My dad was in the service, he was working for NATO,” Yakteen said. “As a kid I grew up sort of out in the country. There weren’t any race tracks around us. I was aware of racing, but I wouldn’t say I always showed a fondness for racing. I had a fondness with nature, with living animals.”
Yakteen presence at the Kentucky Derby didn’t register in Germany, but in his few short days at Churchill Downs he’s been interviewed more times than he cared.
“I was hoping to keep a low profile, but it may not be as easily accomplished as I had been hoping,” Yakteen said. “I’m just trying to do my job and stay focused and on point and accomplish that task.”
If Messier (8-1 on the morning line) or Taiba (12-1) wins on Saturday, there will be no chance of him keeping a low profile. But the question remains how much of the credit he’ll be given.