LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The water splashing off the asphalt from a hose was agitating the horses, so Dallas Stewart asked the man cleaning to stop.
“Relax,” Stewart said with a warm smile. “Eat a doughnut.”
Standing just inside Barn 48 at Churchill Downs, Stewart — the trainer of Tom’s Ready, one of two Tom Benson-owned horses in the field for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby — paused several times in an interview Thursday to attend to distractions.
Some onlookers were chattering a few feet away, and Stewart sent a stable worker off to ask them to keep it down. A jockey rode back in from a training run and Stewart paused to ask how it had gone.
The irony of these distractions is that Stewart has proven himself capable of a singular focus during Derby week.
His goal is to have his horses hit their literal and figurative stride on the first Saturday in May, and that single-minded approach has helped two of them — long shots Golden Soul in 2013 and Commanding Curve in 2014 — finish as Kentucky Derby runners-up.
Before he branched out on his own, Stewart worked under legendary trainer D. Wayne Lukas, a U.S. Racing Hall of Famer who trained Kentucky Derby winners Winning Colors in 1988, Thunder Gulch in 1995, Grindstone in 1996 and Charismatic in 1999.
“When (Lukas) came to the Derby, he was focused and he would just train,” Stewart said. “He didn’t care what his odds were. He didn’t care what the competition was. He tried to get the best out of his horse, to get that horse to peak on that day and move on from there.”
Stewart told Benson, the owner of the Saints and Pelicans, that he’ll take the same approach. The later legs of the Triple Crown — the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes — are close in importance, Stewart said, but “there’s nothing better” than the Kentucky Derby.
“This is the one race you want to be in,” said Stewart, a native of McComb, Mississippi, who divides most of his year between Louisville, New Orleans and Saratoga Springs, New York, moving wherever racing is in season.
He and his wife, Yvette, are Saints season-ticket holders, and though Stewart’s schedule prohibits him from attending most games, he’s an avid fan who sported a Saints ski cap on a chilly Thursday morning on the backside of the Churchill Downs track.
Stewart has had some success in his preferred event. Second-place finishers Golden Soul (35-1) and Commanding Curve (38-1) went off as long shots and finished in the money.
“(Stewart) has been around a lot of good horses,” Lukas said Thursday. “He’s seen a lot of good horses prep for the Derby. He’s an excellent horseman in his own right. If you give him something to work with, he’s going to show up. I don’t have any doubt that this horse will be trained properly.”
Tom’s Ready will run out of the No. 12 post position Saturday with jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. His morning-line odds were set at 30-1, making him another in Stewart’s string of Derby long shots.
“He’s trained great,” Stewart said. “I’ve pushed him on his works. His workouts have been strong. His gallops have been strong. He’s been healthy.”
Tom’s Ready has been good every day. Stewart’s goal is for him to be great Saturday. To that end, he’s monitored the horse’s appetite, energy and focus meticulously in the days and weeks leading up to the Derby.
“The total focus is to be ready two weeks out, get better the next week and then hopefully (again) the next week,” Stewart said. “Two weeks out, you’re trying to be almost as good as you can be. Then you’re pushing a little bit more — in a good, healthy way — to maximize everything you got, everything you know to do with a horse.”
It’s a focus that’s helped the 56-year-old Stewart knock on the door at the Derby.
His mentor has little doubt that one day he’ll break through.
“There’s (a winner) out there with his name on it,” Lukas said. “I don’t know if it’s this year, but he’s young, he’s got good clientele, and (Benson) is probably going to help him a lot, too. There’s one in his future.”