If you watched the May 17 races at Churchill Downs on Fox Sports or whatever other network was showing pandemic racing at the time, you got a glimpse of the future as Art Collector made his first start as a 3-year-old.
After winning the first-level allowance by 2 3/4 lengths at better than 6-1, Art Collector galloped back to the winner’s circle and jockey Brain Hernandez Jr. had just one thing to say to trainer Tommy Drury.
“We gotta figure out how to keep this horse in your barn.”
Drury, whose business mainly centers on prepping horses for clients and sending them on to other trainers from his base at Skylight Training Center in Goshen, Ky., normally doesn’t keep horses like Art Collector and didn’t think he had a chance this time either.
“We were walking back through the tunnel at Churchill and I said, ‘You know, this is a little bittersweet,’ because at that point we thought he was going to Rusty Arnold. “He ran fantastic but . . .”
But nothing. Owner/breeder Bruce Lunsford, a longtime client of Drury’s, called after the race with a welcome message.
“Just take him back to Skylight,” he said. “I’ll let you know what we’re going to do.”
Drury, who prepped Grade 1 winner Madcap Escapade for Lunsford, had a pretty good idea the 3-year-old was staying in the barn and made the most of it as Art Collector added a second-level allowance in June, the Grade 2 Blue Grass in July and the Ellis Park Derby in August. A minor foot injury kept him out of the Kentucky Derby, but the son of Bernardini shows up in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course as the 5-2 second choice behind Authentic.
Friday morning, after watching Art Collector train at Pimlico, Drury tried to put the opportunity into perspective for all the trainers who don’t get such things – Art Collector wasn’t going to make any of the Triple Crown races on their original spring dates, hasn’t lost in four starts for the trainer, scratched from the Derby after striking into the heel of a front hoof and made it to Pimlico for the Preakness in October.
“We just started training him and at that time my thinking was we need to get him up to a half-mile and we need to get him wherever he’s going to go and have him arrive happy and sound and doing well,” Drury said. “Then once all the Covid stuff hit there was so much uncertainty with the racetracks, nobody knew. The training was sporadic, New Orleans was three days a week and some of these other places weren’t allowing horses to ship in. At that point Bruce called back and said, ‘Just keep where he’s at. He’s training every day, it’s consistent, just keep him where he’s at.’ That just led to me being able to run him and that led to where we are today.”
Drury figured out early that Art Collector was a talented horse, a stakes horse hopefully. He'd run five times for trainer Joe Sharp as a 2-year-old, winning a maiden on the turf at Kentucky Downs in September, finishing seventh in the Grade 3 Bourbon at Keeneland (also on the turf) in October and winning (but later getting disqualified for a medication violation) an allowance race at Churchill in November. Drury pointed to a winter break as an important ingredient for the colt’s development this year.
“I’d love to tell you a fancy story but Bruce stopping on him in the fall, giving him a little break gave him a chance to mature as most horses will and he’s really just been very straightforward and easy,” Drury said. “We’ve just kind of tried to stay out of his way and make logical decisions. He won off the shelf the right way and the next logical step was to try him around two turns, so we did that and the next logical step was to try stakes company and he’s kind of earned his way into this stuff.”
Lunsford is proud of Drury’s training job and hopes it’s the beginning of more national opportunities for the trainer.
“It’s turned out to be a great move for me,” he said. “I enjoy getting to see them, I enjoy seeing Tommy and think he’s at the start of something big now. He’s going to have a nice operation. He’s a star to look out for. He’s done work for me for 20 years, but I never thought about him as the trainer because he had all the layups out there. He’s ready for it. They say you spend your whole life trying to be an overnight success and that’s kind of what’s happened.”
Art Collector would have been a player in the Derby, but nicked his foot while training the Monday before the race and was scratched. Missing the big one hurt, especially for a Kentuckian like Drury.
“It was more the timing more than anything,” he said. “We were going to miss a couple a days training and that’s just not the way you want to go into the Kentucky Derby. I’ve been waiting 30 years for this horse to come into my life and I’m sure not going to do anything to jeopardize his future just for one race. It certainly stung a little bit, but having this race right behind it you kind of had to turn the page pretty quickly and start thinking about the next one.”
When it came time to plan a trip to Pimlico, Drury tapped a deep well of contacts. Trainer Neil Howard offered plenty of insight and a link to local exercise rider Annie Finney.
“Doing what I do, this is my first trip here, but the guys that I work for they’ve all been through this and they had me pretty well prepped on what to expect and all that kind of stuff,” Drury said. “I spoke to Neil before I left Churchill and mentioned to him that I needed somebody to get on the horse and he said, ‘I’ve got you covered.’ She’s done a fantastic job with him since he got here.”
Drury arrived in Baltimore Thursday and watched Friday’s gallop from the gap near the quarter pole and was impressed. With the trainer on the lead shank, Art Collector stood in – patiently as always – and watched other horses train, then went back up to the three-eighths pole at a jog and stood in again before galloping 1 1/4 miles at a easy clip after a fast gallop Thursday.
“You know, he looked like he was just skipping over that thing to me,” said Drury. “He’s a free-moving type and you try to stay out of his way a little bit. That’s his preferred way of going.”
Drury led his stable star and Finney back to the barn, and contemplated – like any trainers – all the variables in play. He mentioned the Derby, and just hoped Saturday would arrive without incident.
“After what happened at Derby, as a trainer you’ve been doing it so long that the last thing on Earth you want is something silly to happen this late in the game so yeah I wish I could put him in bubble wrap,” he said. “Especially when you see him coming back after training. He’s showing some animation and feeling good.”
Staring down two horses from Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, three from another Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen and plenty of other big names, Drury figured his horse was as ready as he can be. Nothing left to do but run. He’ll break from post three in a field of 11 at 5:36 Saturday.
Drury is ready.
“I wouldn’t trade places with anyone.”