Tim Yakteen is back at Kentucky Derby with Practical Move, Reincarnate minus spotlight
The crowd in front of Barn 27 was growing by the moment — television crews, reporters, well-heeled owners in dressed-down jeans. But they weren’t there to chronicle the day of the barn’s most prominent occupants, Practical Move and Reincarnate. They were the spillover from an adjacent barn where trainer Todd Pletcher has three horses including race favorite Forte in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.
Amid the crowd, seemingly unnoticed and quietly talking to a couple friends, was Tim Yakteen, whose job it is to get a Derby-winning performance out of Practical Move and Reincarnate.
Last year, the crowd was around Yakteen, who was thrust into national prominence when he was gifted two of Bob Baffert’s best horses after the Hall of Fame trainer was suspended because 2021 provisional Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive for illegal race-day medication.
Reincarnate is a Baffert transfer as the trainer finishes the second year of a litigation-filled two-year ban by Churchill Downs. Practical Move has been with Yakteen since he started racing and is the fourth favorite at 10-1 after winning the Santa Anita Derby. The morning line maker wasn’t impressed with Reincarnate and has him at 50-1.
Yakteen is the antithesis of Baffert when it comes to the media relations part of the job. Always gracious and friendly, the former Baffert assistant can’t wait for an interview to end so he can get out of the spotlight. On Tuesday morning, he pulled one out of the deflecting playbook he used after winning the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita by calling over Practical Move’s owners to do most of the talking.
Clearly, Yakteen isn’t the novelty he was last year, although he says nothing seems different.
“I don’t know if I’m more relaxed, I’d say it’s about the same in those regards,” Yakteen said after moving away from the Pletcher crowd. “It feels the same and you want that feeling. It’s something that we get into the game to get this feeling. Unless you’ve been here you can’t appreciate what it feels like.”
Yakteen, 57, was born in Germany where his father worked for NATO. He spent 18 years there before moving to Cypress in 1980. He started mucking stalls at Los Alamitos and worked his way up to an assistant for a quarter-horse trainer named Baffert. When Baffert moved to thoroughbreds, Yakteen went with him. In 1991 he switched to the barn of Charlie Whittingham and then came back to Baffert in 1997. He worked there seven years before going on his own.
Yakteen has been to plenty of Derbies but this is only his second as the head trainer. He says he learns something every time he is at Churchill Downs.
“I think there are just general things, not that they are intangibles, it’s just something that I can’t put my finger on,” Yakteen said of what he digests. “It’s sort of like life experiences, you pick up certain things, different perceptions. Those are things I make reference to when I’ve had my experiences through the years of coming here as an assistant and then on my own. You just get your gut feeling and you go with that.”
Yakteen came recommended to owners Pierre and Leslie Amestoy two years ago when they wanted to try the Southern California circuit with a colt sired by Into Mischief. The horse was injured and never made it to the track.
“So, I called Tim and said we’re going to go out to the [Florida] sale and get you something,” Pierre Amestoy said. “Leslie and I looked at hundreds of horses and found Practical Move. So, we sent him out to Tim and he’s done fantastic with him. I think we’ve got him in the right spot.”
Leslie Amestoy, a former trainer in New Mexico, explained why they believe Yakteen was the right fit.
“He’s very, very organized,” Leslie Amestoy said. “Every day, every hour, he’s organized. He’s a thinker. He’s got the poker face but he’s always thinking. We like that because you’ve got to think ahead when you’ve got a horse like this.
“You have to make a plan and that’s what we liked the first time we met him. We said we’ve got to make a plan. Show us the way. Show us the road. We’ve got to get there and he has.”
The Santa Anita Derby winner is usually one of the top picks in the Kentucky Derby but Practical Move at 10-1 came in at higher morning line odds than expected.
“I don’t look at the morning line as a respect thing,” Yakteen said. “I look at it as a gambling thing and you’ve got to like the price. Right?”
Yakteen went on to make a case for the colt’s progression in his seven races, four of them wins.
“He’s learned how to use himself,” Yakteen said. “He was kind of a big horse from Day 1. As he’s gotten older, he’s learned how to use his body a little bit more. He’s learned to put himself in a spot where he wants to be running comfortably. In the Santa Anita Derby you saw he’s willing to get into a dogfight and keep giving it to you. Those are qualities you want to see in a racehorse.”
Somewhere around 7 p.m. Saturday, Yakteen will learn whether either of his horses have the qualities needed to win the Kentucky Derby. If they do, he’ll be in the biggest spotlight of his life. He might not enjoy it, but he’ll most assuredly find it worth the effort.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.