CRAWFORD | Pletcher holds a hot hand heading into Kentucky Derby 144
It's not unusual for Todd Pletcher to have a big hand heading into the Kentucky Derby -- it's unusual for anyone to have four hopefuls who are as accomplished as the quartet he expects to send to the gate this year.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – It’s a typical morning around Todd Pletcher’s Barn No 40 at Churchill Downs, horses standing in a line, four at a time, being bathed after training, steam rising from their backs as teams of grooms tend to them.
There’s an element of clockwork to this. And, like clockwork, Pletcher shows up at Churchill Downs in May with not just one, but with a handful of Kentucky Derby hopefuls.
Make a pie chart and cut the expected 20-horse Derby field into five slices, and one of those would be in Pletcher’s barn.
That’s not all too unusual in itself. With four more entries expected to saddle up for Saturday’s Run for the Roses, he’ll take over the lead for lifetime Derby starters from his old mentor, D. Wayne Lukas, with 53 total this year.
Still, neither Pletcher – nor anyone else – has had many stronger hands than he brings into the race this year.
“Best since last year,” Pletcher said with a little smile, a subtle reference to his having last year’s Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming, who will race again at Churchill the day before the Derby. “. . . We’ve been here before in what appeared to be strong position, but we’ve never been here with four horses that won their final prep like these have. So it makes you feel good about it. We’ve had a great spring.”
This year, Pletcher Derby contenders have piled up victories all over the Eastern U.S.
Magnum Moon just won the Arkansas Derby in impressive fashion, rolling to a four-length victory to improve to 4-for-4 lifetime. Atop the Derby points standings, he’ll be among the Derby favorites, despite not racing as a 2-year-old, something no Derby winner has successfully pulled off since 1882.
A short drive south, Noble Indy won the Louisiana Derby for his third victory in four lifetime starts his last time out.
Draw a line East, and Audible comes to the Derby off a win in the Florida Derby, coming from far off the pace to further show off his versatility, having run near the lead in his three previous lifetime wins.
Up the Atlantic Cast, Vino Rosso comes to Louisville off a three-length victory in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in New York.
It’s rare enough to have four starters in the Kentucky Derby. It’s rarer still to come in with four who have a graded stakes victories in their last preps.
“It’s a remarkably consistent group,” Pletcher said. “They all seem to show up and run well every time. With the exception of Rosso’s Tampa Derby, I haven’t been disappointed one time. They’re adaptable to different pace scenarios. . . . I wouldn’t even be too concerned if it rains. It’s nice when you have a group that is versatile in running styles.”
Pletcher is relaxed. He’s hard-driving, but with his second Derby victory last year, there’s little question that some of the pressure is off.
He’s long been one of the best in the game, winning races at every stop. But he was, for so long, the “best trainer to never win a Derby,” that now having won two, that narrative can die.
“You’ve got to be thankful anytime you can win one, and now we’re blessed to win two,” Pletcher said. “It does take some pressure off when you’ve won a couple, but it doesn’t make you want to win another one any less.”
Magnum Moon, along with Bob Baffert’s Justify, will be viewed as the race favorite. The only knock on him is that he didn’t race at two, but Pletcher wanted to be patient with him.
“It was a conservative decision at that point,” Pletcher said. “He was a May foal, but he impressed us from the beginning. Talking to Jacob West the racing manager for (owners) Mr. and Mrs. (Robert) Low, we just thought, ‘We think a lot of this colt, let’s give him a chance to fill out.”
Audible has shown unusual versatility and has gotten better with each successive race. He has tactical speed and has rated just of the pace, but also dropped back all the way to last in his Florida Derby win, when he didn’t want a part of the fast early pace.
Vino Rosso won’t be as short a price as those two, but Pletcher thinks the Derby distance plays into his favor.
“The thing we felt very confident with him from the beginning was we think he wants the distance,” Pletcher said. “The Wood Memorial was his first chance to go a mile and an eighth, and if you look at his pedigree it really screams mile and a quarter to a mile and a half. . . . It gives us optimism that he’ll relish the mile and a quarter (in the Derby).”
It seems strange to say a Louisiana Derby winner could be overlooked, but that could well be the case with Noble Indy.
“He hasn’t done much wrong,” Pletcher said. “He got a little bit of an education in the Risen Star. We took him back a little bit and he got a little bit of dirt in his face and he reacted a little greenly. . . . But what I loved about that race was he got behind and re-rallied, and you don’t see that a whole lot, even among seasoned and older horses.”
This Kentucky Derby field, on paper, could be the strongest in years. In addition to Pletcher’s horses and Justify, Mendelsson was a runaway winner of the UAE Derby and will ship in for trainer Aiden O’Brien. Speed figures are up. So are expectations.
“Right now it looks like a really exciting Derby,” Pletcher said. “You’ve got a little bit of everything.”
Or, as often is the case with Pletcher, a lot of everything.
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