Todd Pletcher freely admits his current scenario is taking him out of his comfort zone.
It's not the daily media obligations that are weighing on the seven-time Eclipse Award winning-trainer, as he is more than adept at repeatedly answering similar queries about his stock. And with a second Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) victory now on his résumé courtesy of the May 6 exploits of Always Dreaming, Pletcher has mostly silenced those who criticized his record in that classic.
With that achievement, though, comes a new challenge. The two-week wheel back between the first Saturday in May and the Preakness Stakes (G1) is something Pletcher's barn rarely engages in. It's a turnaround he concedes he doesn't relish, even though history—and some of racing's all-timers—suggest he is actually sitting in the garden spot.
While the short rest between the first two legs of the Triple Crown has been a popular lament for some horsemen over the years, the modern history of the Preakness reflects a trend that is actually most unkind to the oft-proclaimed "new shooters" and their fresh legs compared with those coming out of the Kentucky Derby melee.
Since 1980 only Codex, Aloma's Ruler (1982), Deputed Testamony (1983), Red Bullet (2000), Bernardini (2006), and Rachel Alexandra (2009) have reigned as Preakness winners without previously starting in the Derby. Of that group, Aloma's Ruler, Deputed Testamony, and Rachel Alexandra were each still coming into the 1 3/16-mile test off a turnaround of 15 days or fewer from their prior outing.
In an age where more time between starts has become de rigueur, the Preakness appears to stand as a tribute to the old-school adage "run them when they're right." As those who have mastered the race can attest, if you came into the Derby with a horse sitting on go and emerged with a contender still giving off positive signs, the 14-day hiatus can represent a prime opportunity to simply let them build off a form cycle.
"If they win the Derby, that means they are doing really, really well, so I've always called (the Preakness) the easiest leg," said Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert—who knows a thing or two, having saddled six winners of the middle classic. "You have to be in top form to win the Kentucky Derby, so once they're in top form, it's just a matter of just getting them there.
"That's why I was fortunate to win so many (editions of the Preakness), because I just felt like I had the best horse. And the horses are peaking."
Adding to the arduous task new shooters face is the fact that, by the very nature of what it is, the Kentucky Derby generally assembles the best sophomores currently in training. If one wasn't good enough to earn their way into that starting gate, it stands to reason they would need a massive form jump in order to topple the holdovers already established as the division's elite at that stage.
"For the most part, I think the better horses are in the Derby, and that's probably why so many of them come back and have success in this race," said Pletcher, who saddled just eight prior Preakness starters with the third-place finish by Impeachment in 2000 representing his lone placing. "You do have some later-arriving ones on the scene, like Bernardini. But the biggest factor is that most of the time, all the major players are already in the Derby."
One possible exception to that theory this year could be Conquest Mo Money, runner-up to champion Classic Empire in the April 15 Arkansas Derby (G1). The son of Uncle Mo —who was not Triple Crown nominated—had enough qualifying points to get into the Kentucky Derby field, but his connections opted to bypass paying the supplemental fee and instead focus on the Woodlawn Vase.
"He's an exception. He could have been in the Derby, and they didn't want to supplement, but he had every right to be in," said Norman Casse, son and top assistant to trainer Mark Casse, who will saddle Classic Empire in the Preakness off his fourth-place Kentucky Derby run. "Now he has a legit chance to win (the Preakness)."
There is irony in the fact that Pletcher—the most successful protégé of Hall of Famer and six-time Preakness winner D. Wayne Lukas—hasn't really given himself many chances to prevail in the middle Triple Crown leg. Of his eight prior starters, only Impeachment, Circular Quay (2007), and 2010 Derby winner Super Saver have run back after the first Saturday in May. When he sent Stradivari out to a fourth-place finish in the Preakness last year, it was his first starter in the race since Dance City in 2011.
"It's really a tremendous respect I have for the Preakness, it's something I'd love to win. It's just that, in a lot of cases, we felt like our horses need a little more time to recover," Pletcher said. "And not all of them have bounced out of the Derby as well as it seems like Always Dreaming has so far."
According to STATS Race Lens, Pletcher has started winning horses off a rest of one to 14 days just 16 times in the past five years. From those 16 starters who won their previous start, he has two wins (13%) and five other placings.
According to history, of the concerns he carries with him as he readies Always Dreaming for Saturday's challenge, the quick turn back should be the least of his worries.
"I think it's going to be a good race and it will be a good test. But if I was Todd right now, I'd be saying 'We just won the Derby so ...' you're riding the highest cloud you can be on," Baffert said. "You're on top of the world. Just enjoy the two weeks and just keep your horse happy."
Correction: Because of an editing mistake, an earlier version of this story mischaracterized the statistic on Todd Pletcher returning horses in two weeks or less off a win. BloodHorse regrets the mistake.