Mucho Opportunity to Apply Unusual Learning

Tim Yakteen | Coady

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Do these things really even out? Who knows? All you can say for certain is that the satisfaction, as and when the wheel turns back in your favor, is all the more profound; and that any neutral, accordingly, should be rooting for Tim Yakteen at the Breeders' Cup.

Like most horsemen, the Californian trainer has learned a wholesome fatalism. He doesn't dwell on what happened seven years ago this week. After all, he has based a whole career on the lessons available in experience of every kind, good and bad–whether those insights derived from two Hall of Fame mentors; or the bitter split-second when the horse that had launched him was taken away at the very threshold of fulfilment.

Points Offthebench (Benchmark) was heading into the GI Breeders' Cup Sprint as favorite after landing Yakteen his first Grade I prizes in the Bing Crosby S. and Santa Anita Sprint Championship, on each occasion beating no less a rival than Goldencents (Into Mischief). During a last workout, however, he suffered a catastrophic leg injury at Santa Anita. Points Offthebench was posthumously saluted as the best sprinter in the land, at the Eclipse Awards, and as Horse of the Year in his home state.

Yakteen, left, and Donnie Crevier (blue jacket) at the trophy presentation for Points Offthebench's Bing Crosby score | Benoit

“When I reflect on our campaign, it had set up really well, timing-wise,” Yakteen recalls now. “Here was a horse that loves running fresh, and it had all seemed to fold out just perfect. It's so great to train for people that let you do your job, and our horse was right at the top of his game. So we were looking forward just to a wonderful weekend.

“It's difficult, any time we lose any horse, to reflect on it. Those are the real lows in the game. It's always painful. And how do you move forward off something like that? But you do, because time is the healer of all wounds. It was definitely a big blow. But we always try to take the good parts, if there are any. I mean, life is a big learning curve. I still train for Donnie Crevier, who was his majority owner and a super good guy; and Chip Martin also remains a good friend. So it was something, one might say, that we all tried to work through together.”

There was one comfort, however cold: Yakteen had shown that he could turn even a plain-bred animal into a champion. Seven years on, he will be bringing another Cal-bred Grade I scorer to the Breeders' Cup in Rodeo Drive S. winner Mucho Unusual (Mucho Macho Man). And we know that her preparation for the GI Maker's Mark Filly and Mare Turf will be equal to her potential. Points Offthebench, aptly named for Yakteen's first real emergence from the sidelines, demonstrated that an all-star education under Bob Baffert and Charlie Whittingham had fully registered with a guy who had come into the game with no relevant antecedents.

His father, of Lebanese origins, had married locally while serving with the U.S. military in Germany; and Yakteen was 18 before he followed a sister to Cypress in Orange County, CA, on July 4, 1982. An auspicious date, to be entering the land of opportunity, and he did not have to seek far for that crucial door ajar. Just over the road was Los Alamitos racetrack, and Yakteen soon found himself mucking out stalls, initially for trotters and then Quarter Horses.

From somewhere, he discovered and disclosed an innate knack for horses. Among those to notice was Baffert, then a charismatic Quarter Horse trainer making strides in his own career.

“It just seemed like it had come easy to me,” Yakteen admits. “But I was given great opportunities, as well. I had always wanted to get into Thoroughbreds, and this was when Mike Pegram was really becoming a catalyst for Bob to move over. So we kind of made that journey together. You're not really changing disciplines, just changing breed.

“I'd like to be able to say that people like Bob, and Wayne Lukas, brought a different tool kit [to training Thoroughbreds]. But I think it basically boils down to fundamentals: being able to read your horse, and fulfil its needs. Remember these guys were already successful where they were; they pretty much brought their skills with them, in terms of both horsemanship and business, to an industry that just tends to have bigger purses and bigger opportunity.

Mucho Unusual took the Rodeo Drive Sept. 26 | Benoit

“I'd worked for a few other Quarter Horse trainers, but Bob was on his way up and, you know, I wanted to surround myself by success. I felt that success breeds success, so I got on the winning ticket and then just tried to absorb as much as I could from a very, very gifted horseman. To be able to watch him perform his magic was a wonderful opportunity. Words can't really describe what he has done. He's making history, and it's all down to hard work and a natural gift.”

It turned out that Baffert's first barn of Thoroughbreds was adjacent next to that of a doyen of his new world; and, after a couple of years, Charlie Whittingham also took note of Yakteen's work.

“Charlie's assistant at the time, Rodney Rash, had decided that he was going to hang out his own shingle,” recalls Yakteen. “And word had gotten to me that I should chat with him, that he'd be interested. I spoke with Bob about it and he was very much in favor of the idea, backed me 100%. I was just fortunate to be at the right place at the right time.”

For six years from 1991, Yakteen served as lieutenant to “the Bald Eagle” as he supervised some of his last great performers: horses like Flawlessly (Affirmed) and Golden Pheasant (Caro {Ire}), whom Yakteen saddled when he won the Japan Cup. On then returning to Baffert, Yakteen could add to his resume proximity to the likes of Silver Charm (Silver Buck), Real Quiet (Quiet American), Silverbulletday (Silver Deputy) and Point Given (Thunder Gulch). When he was sent to the Dubai World Cup with Captain Steve (Fly So Free), moreover, he returned as fiancé to the horse's exercise rider, Millie Ball (herself meanwhile well known in the business as a presenter, nowadays with XBTV). Needless to say, Captain Steve won; but a marriage that has produced two sons, Sam and Ben, is Yakteen's proudest legacy from that memorable weekend.

Captain Steve brought home the Dubai trophy and Yakteen brought home a future wife | Julian Herbert/ALLSPORT

One way or another, the spectrum of horse lore to which he had been exposed must be as comprehensive as for any trainer of his generation. Whittingham, remember, had been assistant to–as exquisite a contrast as you could ask for, from the “cowboy” culture that has given us Lukas and Baffert.

“Charlie, like Bob, dominated the industry for many years,” reflects Yakteen. “And he, too, made history. So I've just been very fortunate. They definitely taught me everything I know, but probably didn't teach me everything they knew! That being said, both were always very willing to step out [and teach]. It didn't have to just filter through. But of course if you really listen, if you try and engage, you learn a little more. And I think I'm a pretty good listener. Of course, we're talking about two great storytellers.”

Instructively, Yakteen notes that Baffert–whose friendship and counsel he still cherishes–was himself no less receptive to whatever he could glean from Whittingham. An open mind, indeed, he views as pivotal to both trainers.

“Bob was able to capitalize on my relationship with Charlie, because he would always pick Charlie's brain,” he says. “I think Bob has been a very good student of the game. One of the similarities between the two trainers would be that neither was ever set in their ways. Both were always very willing to listen, to try a new idea. If it worked, great; if it didn't, they could just go back. But they'd never just say my way is the best way. It was pretty impressive to see Charlie in his late '70s, and something new comes along, and he's ready to give it a shot.”

Humility, paradoxically, sometimes comes easiest to those who feel most secure in what they do. So this willingness to experiment in turn fed on another attribute shared by both Baffert and Whittingham.

“And that was that both had the utmost confidence in their horses,” explains Yakteen. “I think that sort of translates into the confidence of their horses. Because these are trainers who are not afraid to do their job.”

Yakteen, of course, knew that he could not hope to maintain the same quality of raw materials when he went solo in 2004. Baffert had already indulged him with the chance to test-drive a few horses in his own name, but Yakteen's first winner after leaving the barn was a very apt one. Sabiango (Ger) (Acatenango {Ger}) was not only a German migrant, like Yakteen himself; but he was out of a mare named Spirit of Eagles and won the GI Charles Whittingham Memorial H. for Baffert before adding the GIII Kentucky Cup Turf H. for Yakteen in his own right.

Big Score at Keeneland | Coady

It would be naïve, Yakteen emphasizes, to think that even Hall of Famers never get moderate animals. So he always felt equipped to handle stock at every level, whether graded stakes winners (also Grade I-placed) like Big Score (Mr. Big) or the Golden Gate maiden claimer who last week gave his small string its tenth winner from only 65 starters this year. The key, for his patrons, is that horses of every stamp will be handled with uniform honesty and diligence.

Mucho Unusual, like Mr. Big homebred by George Krikorian, is a filly who responds in kind: obliging enough to accelerate from last to first in the GII San Clemente S. last year, and conversely to control the pace through much of the Rodeo Drive. That was a major breakout after an odds-on reverse on her previous start, but she had repeatedly threatened something of that order, notably with close Grade I placings in the Gamely S. and American Oaks.

“When she shipped in for the [GI] Jenny Wiley in July, it was very hot and she really didn't flourish,” Yakteen explains. “She's always been very consistent for us, always given a great effort, but not that day. So we looked for something easier next time, against Cal-breds she should have dominated on past performance. But she didn't, and there was nothing we could point our finger at.

“So we just regrouped. We didn't run back in the [GII] John C. Mabee at the end of Del Mar, which had been on our radar. With just three weeks to the Rodeo Drive, I didn't think she would give her best effort in both, especially coming off just a ho-hum race. So we freshened her up a little and targeted the Rodeo Drive, knowing that some of those fillies were going to be turning back round in just 21 days. And it all worked out.”

Yakteen knows that a career best will be required against European raiders at Keeneland. But she will come into town a fresh filly, again, and generally appears to be thriving.

“She's very easy to train, very straightforward, and has definitely matured, gotten stronger, filled out as a 4-year-old,” Yakteen says. “Obviously we're taking advantage of the 'Win-and-You're-In' opportunity, but I think she has validated herself as a contender. The race will be deep with talent, but we're taking a filly in very good form and you have to give her a good shot. She's doing absolutely dynamite and if a couple of those mares happened not to bring their 'A' game, and we can bring ours, that might just level things out.”

At the Breeders' Cup, as we know, fate should really be reserving something very special for Yakteen, if things are to be truly levelled out. But Yakteen knows that nobody, even a Hall of Famer like Whittingham or Baffert, can either be immune to misfortune or expect redress.

“Listen, life doesn't owe me anything,” he insists. “I've been very lucky. There are a lot of people that work really hard and haven't been given opportunities I have. I'm very lucky: I have a great family, great staff and a good stable, and we can just be grateful for what we have. And now we're looking forward to next weekend, hopefully we'll have some luck, and as long as our filly's doing the best she can, that's all we can ask for.”

 

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