Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher will saddle five contenders to this year’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) on May 5. Here, he reviews the running styles of each horse and talks strategy before the big race.
Any Given Saturday (WinStar Farm, Maverick Racing and Padua Stable):
“Any Given Saturday is doing extremely well. His energy level is great right now. He had a super breeze on Sunday at Keeneland and bounced out of the work great. He's eating really well, he seems just really happy with himself. His energy level is great. So it seems like to me that he's the kind of horse that is kind of grinding on what we're doing with him and he's getting stronger as we go on along; he came in a little later but right away was one that showed us what we liked in the mornings.
“We're fortunate enough to have Garrett Gomez on Any Given Saturday [in the Derby]. He's riding extremely well at the moment, he worked the horse on Sunday, and I think he gets along with him very well. I think his riding style should suit this horse great.
“Let's assume that it's not a blistering pace. If so, then I think Any Given Saturday is a horse that has tactical speed but we're going to try to position and maybe just a touch further back than he's been in his most recent races, and hopefully by doing that, we'll get a little bigger finish from him.”
Cowtown Cat (WinStar Farm):
“Cowtown Cat I liked a lot, I was surprised he got beat first time at Saratoga. I was very satisfied with his second race and then in the Nashua (gr. III) we got off track a little bit [finished sixth]. But he’s one that we like quite a bit.
“We're going with Fernando Jara who rode him in the Illinois Derby and rode him extremely well there. He's obviously a young rider that's already accomplished a lot and he's got some huge wins on him in his career. So you wouldn't think that a big day situation would rattle him at all.
“This is a horse that basically can stalk the pace, but he can go to the front like he did in the Illinois Derby (gr. II) if the pace is really slow. But, I think, probably in this situation he'd be in the second tier.”
Sam P. (Starlight Stable & Donald Lucarelli):
“Sam P. broke his maiden in Saratoga, after just getting beat at Churchill before that. It seems like it happens a lot. These horses, they come in and kind of, show their hand early and show some talent, tend to be the ones that turn out to be good. We took Sam P. to Churchill [instead of stabling at Keeneland] mainly because he tends to get a little excited when he ships into a new place.
“Ramon Dominguez as everyone knows is one of the leading riders in the country. He rode Bluegrass Cat horse in the Kentucky Derby last year and rode him perfectly and finished second. So we’re very pleased to have him aboard [Sam P.], we're really in great shape.
“We put the blinkers on in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) and we got a little more reaction than we were really hoping for. So the most likely scenario is we're going to take the blinkers off and try to get him to settle off the pace a little bit.”
Scat Daddy (James Scatuorchio & Michael Tabor):
“Scat Daddy was basically one of the first 2-year-olds that we got in last year and he was very highly regarded by my dad [Jake Pletcher]. He broke him down in Ocala... he was telling me this might be the best horse he'd ever had on the farm there. So he came in with very high expectations.
“Scat Daddy I would classify as a stalker; he’ll probably be in the second tier. In my opinion he's already run some big races… he’s run a little faster each time and his racing in the Florida Derby (gr. I) was fast enough to win a lot of [Kentucky] Derbys. So I think he's fast enough, I think he's shown enough class this year already. I think he's already there, it's just a matter of whether he can produce that same type of performance at a mile and a quarter. And I'm optimistic that he will considering that he's already won two big races a mile and an eighth.
“Circular Quay and Scat Daddy have a tremendous amount of seasoning. They've kind of been in a lot of different situations that prepare a horse mentally for whatever you can throw at them on Derby day in terms of just the race itself, traffic and getting bumped around a little bit and dirt in your face and all those things.”
Circular Quay (Michael and Doreen Tabor):
“Circular Quay was one of the first two year olds we got in New York last year. And right away he showed us that he had some ability. I'm just hoping he's not 30 lengths behind everybody when they hit the first turn, because he has a tendency to get way out of races in the beginning.
“I don't have any problem with the fact that the horse will be fit and ready to run in the Kentucky Derby. I don't believe the eight weeks will be any excuse. You know, we're just starting to fine-tune his running style a little bit. I don't want to change it; I just don't want him in a position where he's spotting the field, you know, an enormous amount of ground in the early stages. And I think by being a fresher horse, he'll lay a little closer to the pace. Wherever he's comfortable, I‘m happy with that, but I just know that the more that he ran as a two year old and judging from this year, the more he runs, the more lackadaisical he gets in the early stages.
“More importantly for me, just statistically, the horses that we train tend to do much better with time between races and I just don't see why that wouldn't apply to the Kentucky Derby. I know you can take all the historical facts and stats and all that, but if I do that I'm ignoring the most important data and that's on the ones I train.
“It’s hard when you look at the statistical data and you see all the winners have done this or this or prepped three weeks out or four weeks out. But I think you just have to be comfortable with what works best for you as an individual and for your horse even individual. And that's why I really felt like the eight weeks was what this horse needed and if it wasn't the Kentucky Derby and it was some other big race, the Travers (gr. I) for example, I would have had no hesitation.
“It was my first reaction and the more I watched the horse I said, you know what, I know this is the right thing to do for this horse. So that's what we chose to do and Mr. Tabor was completely comfortable with it. That was the end of the story.”
On Training Five Derby Contenders:
“The one thing we've approached a little bit differently this year is the scheduling of our horses; we've tried to space them out a little bit differently and bring in maybe a little fresher horse than we have in the past. Most of the final preparations have been a little further out than they would have normally been, so that's one adjustment that we've made trying to improve on our Derby results.
“I still don't feel like in years past that we've brought the best horse to the race. I'm hoping this year, that maybe one of ours is. I'm pleased with the way some of our horses have run, but naturally every race we run we want to win. That's what we're trying to do and that's the way we're approaching it.
“Like I said, the one adjustment we've made is trying to be more aware of our spacing, leading into it by just trying to duplicate what seems to work for us the rest of the year, which is trying to put these horses in a position where they were coming into this off at least four weeks rest.
“It’s always hard to look back and try to figure out maybe you should have done this or you should have done that, but I think the one thing that we've been able to identify is the horses that run really monstrous races three weeks out have trouble and sometimes lose coming back with another huge effort two weeks later."
Thoughts on the Derby in General:
“As far as this year’s Derby goes, it's definitely anyone’s race, but I think it’s always anyone's race. It looks like the East Coast horses are slightly stronger, but we thought that a few years ago and it turned out not to be the case.
“The horse that's really impressed me is Curlin. He's absolutely dominated in all of his races, he's won by lengthy margins, and he's just a very impressive-looking horse. I saw him here at Keeneland a few days ago. He looks fantastic. He's sort of bucking some historical trends but he's the one horse out there that is sort of separated himself from the ones that he's run against. I would have to classify him as the horse to beat.”