As Todd Pletcher’s contenders for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) arrived at Barn 34 from Keeneland April 30, accompanied by stakes contenders Danzon, Leah’s Secret, and Garden District, the Eclipse Award-winning trainer took time to reflect upon the challenge of reaching – let alone winning – the first leg of the Triple Crown.
“You keep hoping that this one might be the right one, but I have tremendous respect for how difficult this race is to win,” said Pletcher, who will saddle Starlight Stables’ Monba
and Stonerside Stables’ Cowboy Cal
in the May 3 event. “It’s such a tough race; there’s a 20-horse field usually and a lot of jostling going into the first turn, and I think it takes a strong horse to withstand that.”
Pletcher’s runners finished one-two in the April 12 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) – Monba won the prep race in a determined stretch drive while Cowboy Cal held on for second after leading throughout.
“They’re both coming up (to the Derby) well, coming off good races in the Blue Grass, and I feel like they’re training well,” Pletcher said. “I think they both have the credentials to win – obviously you have to show up and do it – but like I said both horses are doing well and at this stage in the game that’s what you hope for; get a good post position later today and see what happens.”
Pletcher ran five horses in last year’s Derby, but his best finish of those five was sixth-place finisher Circular Quay. Pletcher's best career finishes overall were two seconds – with Bluegrass Cat in the 2006 running and with Invisible Ink in the 2001 edition of the Run for the Roses.
“Both of my horses would need to improve a little bit to win this year, but they’re both better horses now than when they ran in the Blue Grass, so I’m pleased with the progress they’ve made the last three weeks,” the trainer said. “We’ll see if that’s good enough.”
Pletcher also took a moment to contemplate his competition, and the lack of an obvious standout in this year’s Kentucky Derby field.
“Last year it seemed pretty obvious at the time that Street Sense
was the horse to beat, (along with) Curlin and Hard Spun
,” he said. “I think it was a little easier to identify who the horses were last year, but there are always question marks. Last year everyone said Street Sense had only two preps, and no Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) winner had won it; Curlin had only had a few starts and didn’t start at two. I think what most horses are proving is that any individual horse is capable of doing anything, and maybe Big Brown is so good that he can win the Kentucky Derby in his fourth start.”
Pletcher predicted the Richard Dutrow Jr. trainee as the post-time favorite for the Derby, but said he also would not be surprised if Pyro
“I’m sure if Rick had his choice he would probably have another race or two,” he said. “But you can only train how the cards are dealt to you, and this is the way they came up for them. We’ll find out if Big Brown is able to overcome some of that and having not been quite as seasoned as some other horses, but at this point he looks very talented and maybe he’s capable of doing that. The trend is obviously changing where horses are fresher and lighter raced coming into this race and they’re doing well.”
Monba and Cowboy Cal will gallop the rest of the week, heading to the track early in the morning, Pletcher said.