02/17/2011 2:59PM

J P's Gusto, Jaycito on the Derby trail with new trainers

Benoit & Associates
Jaycito raced with trainer Mike Mitchell as a 2-year-old, but has since been transferred to Bob Baffert’s barn.

J P’s Gusto and Jaycito were two of the most accomplished 2-year-olds of last year. Both won Grade 1 races, and both made it to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Yet when both make their 3-year-old debuts this year, and begin their quest to the May 7 Kentucky Derby, they will be doing so without the men who were closest to them last year.

David Hofmans trained J P’s Gusto last year. Dr. John Waken, the owner of J P’s Gusto, earlier this week said he “loves the guy.” But when a conflict arose over the direction J P’s Gusto would take to get to the Derby, Waken sided with his racing manager, Steve Bajer, who wanted J P’s Gusto to go to Oaklawn Park. Hofmans was against that move, so when J P’s Gusto runs Monday in the Grade 3, $250,000 Southwest Stakes, it will be with Joe Petalino, who got J P’s Gusto just two weeks ago.

Mike Mitchell trained Jaycito last year, but, according to Ahmed Zayat, the owner of Jaycito, the communication between he and Mitchell, over race planning and possible medical treatment, became unsatisfactory. So Zayat gave Jaycito to Bob Baffert, a move reminiscent of what Zayat did with Pioneerof the Nile, who finished second in the 2009 Derby after beginning his career with Bill Mott.

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As on soap operas and Match.com, breakups at the racetrack are not easy. Trainers are analogous to head coaches, and their job security can be just as tenuous. For every relationship like that of owner Paul Mellon and trainer Mack Miller, who were together until retiring simultaneously, there are jaw droppers, most notably when Billy Turner lost Seattle Slew after winning the 1977 Triple Crown with him.

But in situations like those with J P’s Gusto and Jaycito, involving an animal whose long-term objective is the biggest race of his career, emotions can be rubbed particularly raw.

“I’m not going to lie – losing this colt really hurt,” said Mitchell, who has never started a horse in the Kentucky Derby. “He can run a mile and a quarter, and he will get that distance the first Saturday in May.”

What obligation or expectation is there for the trainers to communicate with one another? In these cases, not much. Neither Petalino nor Baffert said they reached out to, respectively, Hofmans or Mitchell.

“I don’t guess there was very much love lost when they made the change, so I’m just going on with it,” Petalino said. “We’re pretty competitive in an awful lot of ways. We all want to get to the winner’s circle. One of us does it one way, one does it another way. You’re not giving away secrets.”

Waken said he “hasn’t gotten involved” in what communication, if any, there would have been between Hofmans and Petalino. Ironically, even though Waken lives just minutes from Santa Anita, he now doesn’t have any runners in Southern California. But he said he hopes Hofmans “will always be my trainer.”

Hofmans thought J P’s Gusto would best be served by coming back in the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita on Sunday and moving forward from there to races like the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby. Waken, acting on Bajer’s recommendation, said he liked the program at Oaklawn best because he could keep J P’s Gusto around two turns, beginning with the one-mile Southwest.

“I wanted to go a mile,” Waken said. “We know he’s good going seven-eighths.”

There was a chance Jaycito was going to run in the San Vicente, but Baffert returned to his original plan of starting off in next month’s San Felipe. With J P’s Gusto, it was Hofmans who stepped away from a situation he found increasingly untenable. With Jaycito, it was the owner who initiated the trainer change.

The relationship between Zayat said Mitchell appears to have soured in the aftermath of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, in which Jaycito bolted on the first turn. According to Zayat, Mitchell was “convinced he would win by 10 lengths.”

“I said Michael, let’s not talk this way,” Zayat said. “He was planning already on winning the Derby. He believed he was the best thing since the messiah.”

Mitchell and Zayat agree that Jaycito cracked a tooth in the BC Juvenile, which likely led to his bolting. But according to Zayat, in the weeks following the race, he learned from a veterinarian that a medical procedure known as an IRAP – where blood from the horse is drawn, concentrated, and then injected into an arthritic joint – was planned for Jaycito without Zayat’s knowledge.

“I was not getting the total picture of what was going on,” Zayat said.

Zayat also said that he was being lobbied by Baffert to move Jaycito to his barn.

“Bob always wanted the horse,” Zayat said. “It was just like when Mitchell lobbied to get Thorn Song in his barn from Dale Romans.”

So, Zayat decided to make a move.

“Did people do it with a smile? No. Did they hold their nose? Yes,” Zayat said. “I still have respect for Mitchell. He still asks about my family.”

Baffert and Mitchell did not communicate over Jaycito.

“We had to stop on him and give him time off, then figure him out,” Baffert said. “When stuff like that happens, I never really ask. I just try to get them used to my routine. It’s part of the game.”

On that, Mitchell and Baffert agree.

“It happens to all of us in this business,” Mitchell said. “I’ve lost owners, but I try to stay on good terms with them. You try to leave the door open to get that owner back.”

As for communicating with rival trainers, that all depends on the situation, Mitchell said.

“Jack Carava claims off me, and I claim off him,” Mitchell said. “We respect each other. I would share information with a trainer who claims off me and who I respect. You might tell him a few little things to watch out for. Jeff Mullins doesn’t claim off me, and I don’t claim off him, but one time an owner of mine was going to move horses to him, and Jeff called me up and asked if it was okay.

“Jaycito,” Mitchell said, “that’s a little touchy now.”

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