by Jeremy Plonk
May 7, 2018
Chip Woolley seems almost a Dukes of Hazard away in the pop culture timeline to what we’re seeing now in the Triple Crown. We’ve gone from some good ole boys coming up roses in the classics to an almost disturbingly predictable onslaught of powerhouse shedrows. What could be more proof positive than Saturday’s Kentucky Derby 144 trifecta of Bob Baffert (Justify), Chad Brown (Good Magic) and Todd Pletcher (Audible)?
Seems they win everything these days – and even the Triple Crown is not immune.
Baffert swept the series in 2015 with American Pharoah, while Pletcher-Brown-Pletcher provided the troika in 2017 via Always Dreaming, Cloud Computing and Tapwrit. Adding in Saturday’s continuance of duck, duck, goose, that makes the Big Three barns now in possession of 7 of the last 10 Triple Crown trophies and 4 straight. Folks who’ve feared in recent years that a consolidation of the best bloodstock to a handful of powerhouse barns are big on “I told you sos” around the modern day water cooler (aka social media).
Thank goodness for 2016 when we had Doug O’Neill (Nyquist), Keith Desormeaux (Exaggerator) and Steve Asmussen (Creator) photo bomb the Big Three for at least a reprieve. But it’s not like O’Neill and Asmussen are on anyone’s casting call for a Dukes reunion. The good old boys like Art Sherman are 2014 away, and perhaps fading farther into the review mirror. Maybe Shug McGaughey gets another Orb or D. Wayne Lukas another Oxbow, but those are highly successful Hall of Famers in their sunshine years.
When and where will the next Chip Woolley or John Servis or Tim Ritchey or Tim Ice come from? And isn’t it absolutely notable that the success of Mine That Bird, Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex and Summer Bird for those four gentlemen did next-to-nothing for their subsequent careers? No doubt they packed them with a lifetime of memories and some nice paychecks, but Triple Crown success for off-Broadway trainers, time and time again, proves to have no staying power.
So what’s the incentive for the owner with deep pockets to do anything else than what they’re doing? Heck, even when you have a future star that begins off-Broadway, often they’re winding up in stronger, more proven outfits either by owner choice or owner transaction. Ask Dominick Schettino about Always Dreaming or Bobby Springer about War Emblem. Those ended up in the official ledger for Pletcher and Baffert and painted on the side of Churchill Downs for all time. Wayne Catalano, Patrick Reynolds and David Cotey didn’t get to see out Animal Kingdom, Big Brown or Mine That Bird either.
The more you think about it, you almost look back at Mick Ruis showing up Saturday in a plain white T and a ballcap to saddle Bolt d’Oro and gain an appreciation. He could have been mistaken for the guy changing your oil at the drive-through Valvoline, bypassing the ritzy suit and looking a hell of a lot more like a Chip Woolley than most. Maybe their choice in headwear was different, but they seemed to represent a different vibe than what we’re becoming numb to at the game’s highest levels.
I didn’t really think I was longing for that until after Saturday’s result. Now I’m kind of hoping that, like most things in sports and pop culture, we can cycle back to it sometime soon. After all, the decade of the 2000s saw 9 trainers not named Baffert draped in roses who had a combine FOUR prior Derby STARTERS among them. I’m missing me some John Shirreffs, Barclay Tagg, Neil Drysdale, John Ward, and … heck … maybe even some Rick Dutrow.
You see, after watching a parade of championship trophies hoarded by the same cast of characters, some of us are even willing to mix in our feel-good stories with a dose of black-hatted drama. After all, Waylon Jennings reminds us in the open to Dukes of Hazard, “Beat all you ever saw, in trouble with the law, since the day they were born.”
Just give us something different. Anything different. But don’t expect it anytime soon.
Justify will be odds-on at Pimlico to keep the reign going, and awaiting Baffert at Belmont figures to be Brown and Pletcher with a high probability that the Big 3 has a lock on the entire Triple Crown for the third time in four years and runs its streak to six straight victories and nine of the last 12.