(Photo: Tommy Drury and Art Collector at Skylight Training Center)
BALTIMORE – Tommy Drury Jr. had never won a graded stake until Bruce Lunsford’s Art Collector captured Keeneland’s Toyota Blue Grass (G2) less than three months ago. But he’d certainly played a role in the training process for a lot of graded-stakes winners.
Now, after more than 30 years in the trenches and behind the scenes, Drury is embarking on his Triple Crown debut with Art Collector in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes (G1) at Pimlico. His sudden burst into racing’s spotlight follows decades of paying his dues, both with horses at the top of the game and low-level claimers. Drury’s own racing stable consisted mostly of the claimers and horses likely to race at smaller tracks in the region. Any stakes horses or well-bred 2-year-olds likely were being prepared for other trainers.
Video Art Collector Oct 2: https://youtu.be/W4pQE8uriLc
“I always joked with everybody, ‘Eventually one of these horses is going to fall through the cracks,’ ” Drury said. “We’ve kind of been patiently waiting, and that’s exactly what happened with Art Collector. The stars aligned for us and it just worked out.”
The 49-year-old Drury represents the thousands of men and women in this country and the world who work seven days a week with horses and never get a chance in the spotlight. On the racetrack, it’s known as waiting for the big horse to come in.
Of all things, the health pandemic put the big horse in Drury’s life.
Lunsford planned to make a training change when he sent Art Collector to Drury in January to get ready off a layoff. But with the intended trainer, Rusty Arnold, stuck down in Florida for a couple more months in the wake of the COVID outbreak, Art Collector ran with Drury officially his trainer for the first time on May 17 at Churchill Downs. He won by 2 3/4 lengths.
Drury assumed Art Collector would be leaving his barn. But Lunsford — and Arnold — had decided that Drury deserved to keep the colt. That was also the conclusion of Seth Hancock, the head of Claiborne Farm, which long has boarded Lunsford’s mares and stands the owner’s Grade 1 winner First Samurai at stud. Claiborne also has had horses with Drury.
“I sent Bruce a text and said, ‘We’re never going to know if he’s a good trainer if we don’t give him a chance,’” Hancock said of Drury. “Bruce was going to leave him with him anyway, and the rest is history…. And I admire the heck out of Rusty because I think he sent Bruce a text and said, ‘You know, that horse ran too good for Tommy Drury. Don’t move him to me.’ Boy, that’s something that doesn’t happen anymore.”
Art Collector is Drury’s first real shot at the big time, and, so far, he’s handled things flawlessly. The son of 2006 Preakness Stakes winner Bernardini is 4-for-4 in his care, winning two Churchill Downs allowance races, the Blue Grass and then the $200,000 RUNHAPPY Ellis Park Derby — all by open lengths and in fast times.
When Art Collector nicked the fleshy part of his left front heel during a routine gallop the day before entries for the Kentucky Derby, Drury did not hesitate to take the colt out of the race. Never mind how big it would have been for Lunsford and him to have their first Derby starter at their hometown track. If he couldn’t be 100 percent, Drury didn’t want to run. The focus immediately turned to the Preakness.
“I admire what he did before the Derby,” Hancock said. “He could have patched him up, got him over… that’s why I like the guy. He always does the right thing by the horse.”
Brian Hernandez Jr., who rides Art Collector, knows what a single horse can do for a career — as Fort Larned did in carrying the jockey to victory in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1).
“It’s huge for Tommy,” said Hernandez, the trainer’s close friend. “I think that’s been the best thing about this whole deal, all the press and everything he’s getting. People are finally starting to see that, hey, he can get a good horse to the right races. He’s done a great job for his whole career training. Now it’s gotten to the next level, and that’s what you need. It just took the right horse for everybody to see it. And it will be good for him in the long run as well. His stock will get better, and hopefully it will snowball for him.”
Two understated labels of honor in horse racing are calling someone a “horseman” and “a worker.” Drury, by all accounts, is both.
Patty Drury had her only child when she was 16. Thomas Drury Sr. was an exercise rider who generally trained a cheap horse, two or three on the side. Patty Drury can’t remember a time when her son didn’t want to train horses, at least once he realized his dream of being a jockey wasn’t going to happen.
“Tommy is the only person I have ever met who has always known what he wanted to do and has worked toward that without ever changing,” she said. “Tommy has always, always wanted to work with the horses. It’s the love of the horses. When he was born, we lived on a horse farm so he’s been around horses his entire life.
“He’s been telling me since he was about 9 that he was going to have a horse in the Derby some day. As I watched him grow, it seemed like he found his spot in racing. It didn’t look like it would really lead to the Derby, but he was making a really good living. Gosh, I’m his mom. If he wins any race, I’m excited. It might as well be the Derby for me if Tommy is in the winner’s circle.
“The way he’s just stuck to it and built his business, it stays in the back of your mind that, yeah, he could just make this happen. Getting one into the Preakness is every bit just as good. It’s not at home, but it’s just as fantastic… It’s just exciting, unbelievable. I don’t even know the words, to be honest. I love it. I love each interview. Maybe it was Mr. Lunsford who said Tommy is the best-kept secret around the racetrack. I have to agree with that.”
Drury attended Marion C. Moore High School near the southern Louisville suburb of Okolona, an area best known in the sports world for producing star quarterback Phil Simms. Okolona is about 14 miles from Churchill Downs, but Drury found a way to get to the track on weekends. He quit school over Patty’s objections, telling his mom that they couldn’t teach him what he needed to learn.
Drury later earned his GED, but in the meantime, his education moved to Skylight Training Center in Oldham County, east of Louisville and where his dad was working.
“It seemed like he always had something that had been turned out for a year,” Drury said of his father’s stock. “There was always something. You couldn’t gallop it; it would run off. You don’t think about it at the time but now, looking back, I got a lot of education from those horses. It certainly wasn’t uncommon to walk into his barn and there would be three horses and two would be standing in ice tubs. Those kinds of horses, they make you a horseman.”
At the same time, Drury Sr. preached to the teenage Tommy, “If you’re going to do this, you need to work for the bigger outfits.”
Drury officially began as an exercise rider at age 17 and got his trainer’s license at 18. Like his dad, he also worked for other trainers — Frankie Brothers, Bill Mott, Brian Mayberry, a short time for D. Wayne Lukas and Steve Penrod.
“I was kind of like my dad for the next 10 years,” said Drury. “I’d always have a horse, a couple of horses, and galloped on the side. You could just pay attention to how those guys did things, and I started to incorporate some of that into my program.”
Still, he said, “I never thought in a million years I’d be in this situation….
Yeah, there were a lot of days where I drove back from Beulah Park after the last race, had a four-hour drive home and we beat one horse in a ‘non-winners of two’ for $3,500. It wasn’t like I just showed up and got these kinds. There were a whole lot of years getting to this point. It’s certainly not something I’m ever going to take for granted.”
A career break came in the unlikely form of Drury being turned down for stalls at Churchill Downs. Drury and his tiny stable returned to the Skylight training center. But rather than being banished, it proved an opportunity, with Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott sending him a few overflow horses.
“That’s when guys started giving me the opportunity to leg up young horses and things of that nature, guys I’d galloped for,” Drury said. “Bill put me on the map. He gave me an opportunity when no one else would, sent me a couple of horses. You tell people for years, this is what I do, this is what I want to do. And nobody really pays much attention. Then all of a sudden you’re able to say, ‘Hey I’ve got horses for Bill Mott’, and suddenly you have the credibility you need to get going. That’s helped me expand. Whether it’s Bill or Frankie, Ralph Nicks, Al Stall. All these guys have been such lifelines.
“One of the things I learned from Bill was that you might not be where you want to be today, but with a little patience and time, six months from now you might be exactly where you want to be.”
Horses such as current top older horse Tom’s d’Etat, 2011 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and 2-year-old champion Hansen and Grade 1 winners Lea and Madcap Escape were all in Drury’s care at some stage. The Frank Brothers-trained Madcap Escape, who earned $1 million while going 7 for 9, was one of his first horses for Lunsford.
“He’s had his hands on quite a few good horses. He just never had the opportunity” to keep them, Hancock said. “And he’s getting that opportunity with Art Collector and making the most of it.”
Today, Drury’s operation has about 50 horses at Skylight and 10 at Churchill Downs. His business is about evenly split between his own racing stable and preparing 2-year-olds to race and older horses to make a return to the races for other trainers.
“I’ve watched him very closely, and I came to the conclusion that if you look at Mott, Frankie and Shug (McGaughey) — all of whom I’m close to — they started as claiming trainers and small guys building their thing,” Lunsford said. “As they did, they did a lot more direct work on horses. So when they got to the better horses, they knew how to get them through injuries and how to do things. Tommy does, too. He had the same kind of background.”
For Drury, it was like winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic when Claiborne Farm’s 6-year-old gelding Departing – a five-time stakes-winner and $1.9 million-earner who ran in the 2013 Preakness for trainer Al Stall – won a $100,000 stakes at Indiana Grand in his first start for Drury in 2016.
“Can’t believe I just won the biggest race of my career, and doing it for Claiborne Farm just makes it that much more special!” Drury wrote on Facebook. The trophy, which he strapped behind the seatbelt, rode shotgun on the drive back.
Departing was second in his next start, coming out with an ankle problem. As much as Drury wanted the gelding to get to $2 million, just because he thought the horse deserved it, he told Hancock he thought it best that Departing be retired.
“Tommy said, ‘You know, given who he is, I don’t want to try to patch him up and go on. I think it’s best we stop on him,’” Hancock said. “That was the right thing to do. Every horse we ever had with Tommy, whatever he would tell me, in my mind it was always the right thing to do. I thought, ‘Well, this guy is sure enough all right.’ I just became really fond of him, not only as a trainer but as a human being and person. I admired his work ethic, everything about him.”
In a two-month span two years ago, Drury, the father of 19-year-old Matt and 16-year-old Emma, went through the death of his own dad, who had led a difficult and sad life in later years that included addiction and homelessness, and an unexpected divorce. Amidst it all, the dog who’d served as his trusty companion for many years died.
Hancock said he couldn’t change anything or alleviate the pain Drury was experiencing, but just maybe this was the time for him to start thinking about his career, his own dreams. As part of that, Drury again started having horses stabled at Churchill Downs, which boosted his profile even before Art Collector. This winter, he might have a small string in New Orleans — the first time he’s had horses stabled outside the Louisville area.
“Throw the horses out of it,” Drury said of Hancock. “He’s taken me under his wing, and he’s a close friend and advisor. His support and encouragement give me the confidence to go out and swing for the fences when it comes to my career.”
Whether Art Collector wins or loses the Preakness, he definitely has raised Drury’s trajectory. Lunsford withdrew Art Collector’s yearling half-brother (out of the mare Distorted Legacy and sired by the super-hot stallion Into Mischief) from Keeneland’s recent auction. The youngster figured to fetch a huge price, but Lunsford instead will race the horse with Claiborne as partner and Drury the trainer.
“We want to help Tommy have a great career,” Lunsford said.
Story & Photo: Jennie Rees for Maryland Jockey Club