Tim Yakteen brings 2 top horses to 1st Ky Derby in charge

ARCADIA, Calif. (AP) — Tim Yakteen has raced in the Kentucky Derby before with good horses. Now the coach is…

ARCADIA, Calif. (AP) — Tim Yakteen has raced in the Kentucky Derby before with good horses. Now the coach is at Churchill Downs in charge for the first time with two top contenders who were trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert.

Yakteen worked two different periods earlier in his career as an apprentice under Baffert, who will not be at the Derby on Saturday because he is serving a 90-day suspension imposed by Kentucky race officials. The six-time Derby winner was also banned for two years by Churchill Downs Inc.

This may seem uncomfortable for almost everyone except Yakteen.

“I wouldn’t say I think there’s an embarrassment there,” he said. “I feel really lucky and lucky.”

A surprised Yakteen received calls from the owners of Messier and Taiba asking him to train their budding stars.

“I was honored that they had the confidence that I could continue to carry the torch,” he said, perched on a log near Messier’s stall in his Santa Anita barn.

Baffert gave up the colts to serve the sentence after last year’s Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive for an anti-inflammatory drug which is not permitted on race day.

Baffert’s suspension rules him out of Santa Anita and Yakteen said they haven’t had a conversation since taking over Messier, the Derby’s third choice 8-1, and Taiba, a 12-1 shot .

Taiba is owned by Amr Zedan, who campaigned for Medina Spirit before that colt died in December after training at Santa Anita.

Yakteen has around 30 horses of varying abilities in his barn. The addition of Messier and Taiba provided a burst of positive energy, he said.

“I never, ever woke up and didn’t want to go to work,” he said. “I appreciate it immensely.”

Yakteen’s career highlights include four Tier 1 wins, including Taiba in the recent Santa Anita Derby, and an Eclipse Award for Points Offthebench sprinter champion. He has over 250 career wins and purses of over $12 million.

Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith will ride Taiba in the Derby, after successfully teaming with Yakteen in California.

“He’s one of those guys you feel confident with when you’re riding for him,” Smith said. “He’s been there long enough. I think it will be awesome.

Yakteen grew up in Germany, where her Lebanese father served in the US military after becoming a US citizen.

He moved to the United States at the age of 18 in 1982, joining a sister who lived next to the Los Alamitos racetrack in Cypress, California. He attended the races for the first time and was hooked.

“That night was electrifying and it’s been with me ever since,” he said.

He got a day job on the track, working in publicity, band sales and marketing. At night, he watched the races.

It wasn’t long before Yakteen came to the stables area, offering to work for free filling buckets of water and cleaning stalls. He moved into a tack room.

“I enjoyed every aspect of it,” he said. “I was aiming to be part of the industry.”

After starting out with driving horses, Yakteen was hired by a white-haired quarter horse trainer named Baffert, who had left Arizona to pursue his own dream. When Baffert switched to thoroughbreds in 1988, Yakteen stuck with him.

A few years later, Yakteen was at the Santa Anita race office when he ran into Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham, who said hello.

“I was like, ‘Wow, the pope spoke to me,'” Yakteen said. “The timing was perfect.”

He joined the Whittingham stable as an assistant. In 1994, Yakteen entered his first Kentucky Derby by helping second-placed Strode’s Creek.

Two years later he and Whittingham returned with a Derby runner. At the same time, Baffert finished second with Cavonnier in his first Derby.

In 1997, Yakteen returned to the Baffert barn and for the next seven years was part of the team that worked with back-to-back Kentucky Derby winners Silver Charm and Real Quiet and 2001 Derby champion War Emblem.

Having learned patience and the ability to read a horse’s subtle signs from Baffert and Whittingham, Yakteen opened his own stable in 2004.

By then he had married Millie Ball, a rider for Baffert. She is now a host and reporter for digital horse racing network XBTV.

The couple’s two sons, Sam, 16, and Ben, 14, will be at home ‘sulking’ about missing the Derby because of school, Yakteen said.

What happens after the Derby is up in the air.

Yakteen said there was no discussion about whether Messier and Taiba would stay in his barn. Baffert’s suspension runs until July 2, keeping him out of the Preakness on May 21 and the Belmont on June 11.

“I’m crossing my fingers that if we have a successful campaign, it will be a realistic opportunity,” Yakteen said.

At 57, Yakteen knows the enormous odds a trainer faces in bringing a horse to the Kentucky Derby. And he has two.

“It’s like a lottery ticket falling into your lap,” he said. “Now we’re trying to cash in on it.”

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