Tom Pedulla is interviewing prominent owners, trainers and jockeys for America’s Best Racing as they travel the Road to the $3 million Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve on Saturday, May 2, at Churchill Downs.
Trainer Jack Sisterson is featured this week. He will saddle Flap Jack for his 3-year-old debut in the $300,000, Grade 3 Gotham Stakes on Saturday at Aqueduct.
Sisterson is a former assistant to prominent West Coast trainer Doug O’Neill. He played a role in the development of I’ll Have Another, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2012 before the star-crossed colt was scratched from the Belmont Stakes with a career-ending injury, and 2016 Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist.
Sisterson trains in behalf of tradition-rich Calumet Farm, which bred and owns Flap Jack. A son of 2013 Preakness winner Oxbow, Flap Jack won the Arlington-Washington Futurity at seven furlongs at Arlington International Racecourse Sept. 7, 2019.
Flap Jack and promising young jockey Declan Carroll will break from post-position 9 as part of a field of 11 in the one-mile Gotham. The race offers Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the top four finishers on a 50-20-10-5 basis.
PEDULLA: How has Flap Jack changed from 2 to 3?
SISTERSON: He’s mentally and physically matured. He’s a bigger, stronger horse. The time off has only done him a world of good. He’s transitioned well and trained very forwardly.
PEDULLA: Why did you wait until the Gotham for his first start this season?
SISTERSON: We did not want to press him too early. We wanted to do what is right by the horse. We let the horse tell us when he was ready to start breezing back. We felt the one-turn mile in the Gotham would be the perfect comeback race for him.
PEDULLA: If he performs well in the Gotham, would the April 4 Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct probably be next?
SISTERSON: We’ll have to see. We’ll take each race as it comes, and we’ll evaluate him after the race. He’s coming off a very, very, very long layoff. Usually, the way we train, they improve with racing. We don’t train them to be 100% off the bench first time out. We’ve left a lot in the tank for Flap Jack to improve after Saturday. If he runs well, we would definitely look to run back in the Wood a month later.
PEDULLA: What are some of the things you took away from being an assistant to Doug O’Neill?
SISTERSON: The horses come first. There was attention to detail. We had to go through each horse individually, before they trained, after they trained. The feed program was big. If a horse’s appetite was good, it was showing signs of doing well. If it was not, there might be an issue and you’ve got to diagnose that issue.
PEDULLA: Anything else you took away from Doug?
SISTERSON: He created a team environment. We’re not up to Doug O’Neill’s training performances, but we want to create that environment where we win as a team and we lose as a team. It’s a whole team effort here.
PEDULLA: What was it like to be part of the team that produced I’ll Have Another?
SISTERSON: It’s a dream. We’re in this game to dream and be in a position like that. He had an injury that he probably could have run in the Belmont, but Doug puts his horses first and Mr. Reddam [the owner] and there was absolutely no chance that he would put that horse at risk. They did what was right. Looking back, it was a great experience.
PEDULLA: How long have you trained for Calumet?
SISTERSON: Last year was my first full year.
PEDULLA: What is it like to work for them?
SISTERSON: You are honored to work for an operation like this with the history behind it. It’s a big team effort. When you work for people like that, you want to work that much harder to be successful because they put that much time and effort into it themselves. The name alone speaks for itself. I think over a few years you might see the name pop up in bigger and better races as we move forward.
PEDULLA: What would it mean to you if Flap Jack emerges as a Derby contender?
SISTERSON: I don’t want the focus on me. It would mean a lot to the barn. He’s a homebred. I think people lose sight of all the hard work that these breeders put into the sport. When a horse pops up and wins a big race, the limelight is on the trainer which, in my opinion, it shouldn’t be. These guys have worked endless hours. They get the mare in foal, they spend numerous hours weaning them and no one sees that side of it.
PEDULLA: It sounds as though we should not be looking for Flap Jack to be 100% on Saturday. If that is so, what kind of effort are you looking for?
SISTERSON: He won’t be (100%) because we don’t train hard. We train them to improve with racing. We want them to have a good experience and come out of the race looking forward to another race and hopefully move forward.
PEDULLA: How do you expect the Gotham to unfold for you?
SISTERSON: I expect him to be sitting forwardly placed, right behind the pace. Hopefully, somebody’s dueling up front and we get the jump on the closers and finish up a good race and we’re hitting the board. It wouldn’t shock me if he jumped up and was to win a race like that because talent-wise, he has that in him.