Pletcher looks to end streak of Derby futility

Trainer has four horses in Run for the Roses

May 01, 2010|By Kevin Van Valkenburg The Baltimore Sun

LOUISVILLE, KY. — — Todd Pletcher is a serious man. He does not smile, or joke, easily.

But Pletcher did flash a tiny grin earlier this week when asked whether he had any Kentucky Derby routines or superstitions. Did he have a restaurant he frequented or a routine he stuck to?

"I haven't found anything that works, so I've got to keep changing every year," Pletcher said. "Maybe if I find something that works, I'll have to keep doing it."

It was Pletcher's way of addressing the obvious: Despite the fact that he's perhaps the best thoroughbred trainer in the sport right now, and one of the hardest workers in the game, he can't seem to shake the label as the man who can't win the Derby. He has entered 24 horses in the Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs, and each one has come up empty, the most attempts in the history of the race without a victory.

With each year, and each miss, the questions seem to intensify. This year, the Daily Racing Form decided to have a little fun with the storyline, putting a cartoon version of the 43-year-old trainer on the cover of its Derby preview, depicting Pletcher climbing a thorn-covered rose with garden shears in his hand, the flower just out of reach.

"I've heard it so much that honestly it doesn't even faze me," Pletcher said. "I like to I think I've done a pretty good job of laughing it off."

Pletcher has four chances today with Devil May Care, Super Saver, Mission Impazible and Discreetly Mine. Two weeks ago, it looked as if he would enter the race with the clear favorite in Eskendereya, but the colt was scratched Sunday with swelling in his lower leg, an injury that made it a wide-open field once again.

"It's something that we haven't achieved and something we're going to keep trying for," Pletcher said. "If we're fortunate enough to win it, I don't think I'd feel any different. Honestly, if we win on Saturday, I don't think I'd be a better trainer than I am today. Maybe we just show up with the right horse."

Having the right horse on the right day might be more important than having the most talented horse this year. Today's weather forecast is calling for nearly 2 inches of rain in the morning with scattered thunderstorms throughout the afternoon, and a muddy track means virtually anyone could end up in the winner's circle.

Lookin At Lucky (9-1) and Sidney's Candy (11-1) inherited the label of the next-best horses when Eskendereya was scratched, but their hopes took a serious blow when they drew the two least favorable post positions, No. 1 and No. 20. That puts a lot of pressure on their jockeys, Garrett Gomez on Lookin At Lucky and Joe Talamo on Sidney's Candy, to negotiate traffic and know when to go for it.

"Garrett is going to have to make that call," said Bob Baffert, who is trying to win his fourth Derby. "He's a big-time rider. It's like if you're a big-time quarterback, you have to make big plays in the right moments. You can't worry about that. It's up to me to deliver the horse to him, then it's up to him to deliver for us."

If recent history is an indication, it's folly to play the morning-line favorite anyway. Only four times in the past 15 years has the Derby favorite, currently Super Saver at 7-1, won the race. That could open up the race for a horse who has flown under the radar this week, like Dublin (21-1) or Awesome Act (13-1).

"There's something about the Kentucky Derby that makes it an extraordinarily difficult race to win for so many reasons," said Jeremy Noseda, trainer of Awesome Act, who lives in England and is running a Derby horse for the first time. "I genuinely believe that in the Epsom Derby [England's biggest race], you know if you've got the best horse, you'll go and win the race. I don't know whether that really applies to the Kentucky Derby. That's not to run the race down, but it's such a unique event that I think there are so many other issues that come into play. I think that's one of the reasons that it's so special, because it's an extraordinarily tough thing to do."

There are speed horses in the field who should set the pace, such as Baffert's other horse, Conveyance, or Line of David and American Lion, but only 22 horses have won the Derby when leading wire-to-wire. A fast start could set the stage for a closer like Ice Box (11-1), who stormed from behind to win the Florida Derby six weeks ago.

Ice Box's trainer, Nick Zito, who won the Derby with Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go For Gin in 1994, doesn't think the bad weather would favor his horse.

"Speed will carry in the slop," Zito said. "It always does. You saw what happened in Go For Gin's year. There was a lot of speed, but Holy Bull didn't break, and that was it."

Some horse is going to get a good trip, and it might just be Devil May Care (11-1), who would be just the fourth filly to win the Derby in its history.

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