Todd Pletcher, Calvin Borel, and WinStar Farm do not evoke images of Cinderella. There are no ragged clothes, glass slippers, or handsome princes scripted in their story. All have been to the ball and achieved enough fame and glory to last a lifetime.
And then there is the regally bred Thoroughbred, Super Saver , who was born to be a star and destined to achieve great things. No emergence from the claiming ranks or miraculous return from injury. For him, all roads have always led to the first Saturday in May.
These are not the characters of fairy tales. But the Kentucky Derby has a unique way of interweaving plots and characters and writing its own compelling storylines.
In 2010, The Derby scriptwriters managed to take all four players and create another fascinating chapter in the race’s long and storied history, concluding with Super Saver’s 2 ½-length victory.
And they did it by putting their own twist on a familiar theme: Sometimes, one has to rebound from adversity before truly appreciating the ultimate triumphs.
The day before the May 1 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), Calvin Borel suffered his second consecutive defeat aboard last year’s Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra in the grade II La Troienne Stakes. It was a tough blow to the sport and to the filly’s legion of fans. But most of all, it was hard on Borel, who has had a love affair with Rachel since he began riding her.
“She’s still our angel,” said Borel’s wife Lisa. “There is nothing in the world that can change the way we feel about her.”
But racing is not a sport where one dwells on the past. There was another Kentucky Derby to look forward to and the chance to become the first jockey in history to win three Derbys in four years.
A little more than 24 hours later, Borel, as he did in 2007 aboard Street Sense and 2009 on Mine That Bird, was standing straight up in the irons, flailing his arms and waving to the cheering crowd as he returned aboard a Kentucky Derby winner.
Lisa was unable to hold back the tears, breaking down on several occasions. “Congratulations, baby, I love you,” she shouted to him across the track, knowing he was unable to hear her. When he finally brought Super Saver onto the grass course on his way to the winner’s circle, Lisa rushed up to him. Borel reached down and kissed her and said, “That’s what I was born to do, baby.”
Standing off to the side, Borel’s longtime agent, Jerry Hissam, was feeling good, not only because he had just won another Derby, but because of his belief in Super Saver. Last November after the son of Maria's Mon – Supercharger, by A.P. Indy won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) at Churchill Downs with Borel up for the first time, Hissam assured Pletcher, “I’m gonna break your maiden in the Derby.”
A week before the Derby, Hissam, as if looking into a crystal ball, said of the speed conscious Super Saver. “Calvin will have that horse 10 lengths back. You watch how far he has him back. I told Calvin, ‘Let them keep not talking about you, because I’m telling you this horse will run big.’ When he got off him after his work (a half in :48 4/5 breezing, hugging the rail the whole way), he said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll have him back.’ He gets them to skim that rail and he lays them right on that fence. He teaches them what he wants them to learn.”
Hissam had just described to a T the running of the 2010 Kentucky Derby. To demonstrate the magic of Borel, especially at Churchill Downs, both Pletcher and WinStar president Doug Cauthen said before the Derby that of all their horses, Super Saver looked to be the least ratable. Tell that to Borel.
Unlike most jockeys, who would never book a mount the race after the Derby, Borel honored his commitment to ride Omniscient in an allowance race for none other than Rachel Alexandra’s owner and trainer, Jess Jackson and Steve Asmussen. He went into the colt’s saddling stall and kept stroking his neck and shoulders for several minutes. The Derby celebration would have to be put on hold.
Borel gave it his all, battling on the front end early before finishing third. Returning after the race, his face was bright red and he kept pouring water over his head. He paid no attention to the crowd cheering for him. Going up the escalator to the jock’s room, he laid his head on the railing, obviously physically and mentally exhausted. Shortly after going into the locker room, he lapsed into what was later diagnosed as heat stroke, and a nurse quickly was summoned. She said Borel’s blood pressure was elevated but that he was fine.
A few minutes earlier, a jockey came out of the locker room and said, “Calvin’s trying to die in there.”
Borel soon emerged, his color back to normal, as if nothing had happened.
When Lisa arrived, she said, “He won’t do that again. He thinks he’s invincible, that he’s made of iron. Even though he won the Derby, he didn’t want to shirk his responsibilities to other people. I think the excitement was just too much for him. But tomorrow he’ll be up early and ready to go. He’ll want to get on a horse for his brother (Cecil).”
For Pletcher, trainer of Super Saver, most of the talk prior to the 136th Kentucky Derby was about his ignominious 0-for-24 record in the Run for the Roses.
Although he was constantly confronted with that statistic, he offered little excuses, knowing it was only a matter of time when that special horse would come along.
“Todd holds it pretty well within himself; a lot better than I do,” said Pletcher’s father J.J. before the Derby. “He’s pretty sharp. He’s forgotten more about horses than I’ll ever know. All I did was make him work a little. He started reading the Racing Form when he was in the first grade. Every year, I come to the Derby because I’m afraid I’ll miss it when he does win. I get a lot more nervous than he does. I just want him to win; the money means nothing.”
The elder Pletcher remembers his son walking hots at the age of 6 and making picks at Sunland Park for his good friend Corky Richardson, who would place a few dollars on the horses for Todd.
If Pletcher was ever going to win the Derby, this looked like the year. Not only did he have the overwhelming favorite in Eskendereya, runaway winner of the Wood Memorial (gr. I) and Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II), he also had major stakes winners Super Saver and Rule for WinStar Farm, Mission Impazible , Discreetly Mine, and Interactif. There would be no excuses this year.
But on the Sunday before the May 1 Derby, things began to unravel. Pletcher was forced to announce the crushing news that Eskendereya would miss the Derby because of a filling in his leg.
Even the normally stoic Pletcher could not hide his emotions.
“This is one of those that will take a long time to get over,” he said after calling the colt’s owner Ahmed Zayat to break the news to him. “No matter what happens on Saturday there’s always going to be that ‘what if.’ There’s no way around it. It’s so hard to find horses like that.”
The next day, Pletcher and WinStar decided to withdraw the multiple stakes-winning Rule from the Derby following a subpar workout on Saturday. With the subsequent defection of Interactif and addition of the filly, Devil May Care, it left Pletcher with three colts and one filly. Of those, only Super Saver and Devil May Care were considered leading contenders, with Mission Impazible and Discreetly Mine expected to be longshots.
In the span of a couple of days, Pletcher had taken a major hit and no longer appeared to be the dominant force in the Derby he was just a short time earlier. Fast forward to Derby day and there was Pletcher hugging his jubilant mother, Jerrie, on his way to the winner’s circle.
“Man, that’s a weight off my shoulder,” J.J. said. “I don’t know about Todd. I called him at 5:30 (Tuesday morning) and we talked about shipping some horses to Saratoga from Palm Meadows. He was all business as usual. But you could tell he was excited after the race. He tried to get me to come up to the podium, but I didn’t want to distract from his glory. Let him and his wife and the kids have it; they deserve it. I was just so happy to see my grandkids up there. Maybe one of them will take to training some day.”
As for WinStar Farm, co-owned by Kenny Troutt and Bill Casner, they were having problems of their own, as their once powerful four-horse entry of Super Saver, Rule, American Lion , and Endorsement, was reduced to two. They had already lost Rule when Endorsement, trained by farm manager Elliott Walden’s former assistant Shannon Ritter, suffered a condylar fracture in his final Derby workout.
Casner was devastated, not as much for himself or WinStar as for Ritter. “This is a tough day for Shannon,” he said. “She lost the best horse she’s ever had. He was the entire focus of her life.”
As Casner spoke, tears began to well up. “We as owners move in and out of these horses’ lives, but the trainers are there 24/7. They’re there physically and they’re there mentally, thinking about them constantly. No one is more deserving than Shannon. We were all rooting for her. This is probably one of the lowest points in her life. She’s a tough girl on the outside, but you know on the inside it’s devastating. Things can change like that in this sport.”
For Casner and WinStar, they would change once again in a few days. As Doug Cauthen said on his way to winner’s circle, “God works in mysterious ways. My dad (Ronald ‘Tex’ Cauthen, who died in June 2009) was pushing him all the way down the stretch.”
Also, Cauthen’s brother, Hall of Fame jockey Steve Cauthen, was celebrating his 50th birthday on Derby Day.
Casner could only shake his head at all that had transpired in the past several days. “Unbelievable; it’s been an up and down week, hasn’t it?” he said. “Classic Calvin Bo-rail. He owns the Derby.”
And finally, there was Super Saver, a WinStar homebred who yearling manager Donnie Preston remembers as “pretty tough. He wasn’t overly aggressive or mean, but he had that attitude that you want to see that carries over to the racetrack. Whoever he was turned out with, he was always the leader of that group. You had to make sure you had a pretty good guy working with him. He was like your typical teenage boy. Now he acts like he’s grown up and is more mature.”
Super Saver was sent to the farm for a little break over the winter, where he was allowed to go out in the round pen to unwind and was hand-walked around the shed as much as possible.
Two races were planned prior to the Derby, and Pletcher felt he took a big step forward after his third-place finish, beaten a half-length, in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III), and another step forward after his narrow defeat in the Arkansas Derby (gr. I), in which he was beaten a neck. Prior to the Kentucky Derby, Pletcher said he felt Super Saver “probably is the one who has turned the corner the most. I think he’s better now than he was going into the Arkansas Derby.”
With Eskendereya out of the race, and the two new favorites, Lookin at Lucky and Sidney’s Candy, drawing the two worst post positions – 1 and 20, respectively, it left the Derby as wide open a race as any in its previous runnings. Lookin at Lucky , who has been anything but lucky in his career, was made the lukewarm 6-1 favorite, with Super Saver (8-1) and Sidney's Candy (9-1) the only horses in single-digit odds. A good deal of the support for Super Saver was due to Borel. The rest of the 20 horses were all being bet, with their odds ranging from 10-1 to 31-1.
Also getting bet at 11-1 was Florida Derby (gr. I) winner Ice Box , trained by two-time Derby winner Nick Zito, who was seeking his first Derby win in 16 years.
Zito could only hope for one thing. “I want Moses to do this,” he said, spreading his arms apart to signify the parting of the Red Sea.
Baffert, despite having the favorite, knew when Lookin at Lucky drew the rail his chances of winning a fourth Derby were greatly reduced. The only luck Lookin at Lucky has had in his last five starts has been bad, with poor posts and troubled trips, in which he had to check severely on two occasions.
“Everything was going so great and now it’s not happening,” Baffert said. “I don’t feel it. This poor horse just can’t get a break.” Little did Baffert know the colt’s luck was about to get even worse.
Heavy morning rains and an ominous weather forecast put a damper on Derby Day. But the rains ended in late morning, except for an occasional light shower, and just as the horses came out on to the track, the sun came out briefly, giving the sloppy track a bright sheen that reflected the images of the horses.
The last horse onto the track was Sidney’s Candy with 20-year-old Joe Talamo aboard. Talamo appeared to be engulfed by the wall of noise and in awe of the magnitude of the event as he rose in the saddle and looked wide-eyed into the packed grandstand. He was just grateful to be here after last year’s Derby mount, favored I Want Revenge, was scratched the morning of the race.
Lookin at Lucky broke alertly, but his troubles began immediately when Super Saver, with Borel already looking to get to the rail, came in and pushed Noble’s Promise into Lookin at Lucky, forcing Garrett Gomez to take a slight hold of him. He still was in good position, but several strides later, Paddy O’Prado rushed up and forced Stately Victor into Lookin at Lucky, who was bumped hard, nearly going into the rail. Gomez had to check sharply and the next thing he knew he was back in 18th. For Baffert, the race was all but over.
Meanwhile, Baffert’s other entry, Conveyance, had shot to the lead, followed closely by Sidney’s Candy, who was having a great trip from the 20-post. The pair sped through a demanding opening quarter in :22.63 and half in :46.16.
Down the backstretch, Sidney’s Candy put pressure on Conveyance, with Noble’s Promise moving up steadily into fourth, then third. Borel, as expected, had Super Saver hugging the rail, with the colt’s body nearly touching the fence. Amazingly, there was no one in front of him and plenty of room to his outside, as no other rider seemed willing or daring enough to venture onto the “Borel Trail,” as Baffert calls it. When asked how Borel gets away with it race after race, a dejected Kent Desormeaux, who rode Paddy O’Prado, said after the race, “I don’t know…we let him.”
Around the far turn, the three-quarters in a testing 1:10.58, Conveyance was being pushed hard, as was Sidney’s Candy. Noble's Promise unleashed a powerful run, splitting the two leaders and quickly opening a 1 ½-length lead nearing the head of the stretch. Super Saver was moving into contention along the rail, with stablemate Devil May Care closing strongly on his outside, along with the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Dublin.
The pace was now slowing down, with the mile run in 1:37.65. Borel, as he had done in both his Derby victories, came around one horse, in this case Conveyance, and darted back to the rail. In a flash, he charged by Noble’s Promise and began to draw clear under steady right-handed whipping. Paddy O’Prado split horses and then moved outside Noble’s Promise to launch his bid, with Make Music For Me closing from dead-last on the far outside.
The hard luck horse in the stretch was Ice Box, who rallied from 19th only to have holes keep closing up on him. He still was 11th at the eighth pole when Jose Lezcano finally steered him abruptly to the outside, and the little chestnut exploded, while still on his left lead. Super Saver by now was long gone, but Ice Box put in a furious late rally to snatch second by a neck from Paddy O’Prado.
Zito explained, “I said I needed Moses (to part the Red Sea), but he only did it once and that was for millions of people.”
But when you consider how close Ice Box came to not making the Derby at all, his connections should be extremely happy with the result. As owner Robert LaPenta pointed out to Zito, how big was that nose victory in the Florida Derby? Had the photo gone the other way, Ice Box would have been sitting on the sidelines Derby Day.
Although he hasn’t made an official decision, Zito is leaning toward running 12th-place finisher Jackson Bend in the Preakness (gr. I) and pointing Ice Box for the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). If Super Saver goes on and wins the Preakness, Zito, who has thwarted two Triple Crown attempts with Birdstone and Da’ Tara, issued a subtle warning. “We’ll be waiting for him…at home.”
The final time for the $2,185,200 Derby was 2:04.45, which was two-fifths slower than Smarty Jones’ Derby, also run over a sealed sloppy track. Make Music For Me ran a big race to finish fourth, with Noble’s Promise hanging tough to be fifth. Lookin at Lucky, to his credit, never gave up and rallied to finish sixth, a half-length in front of Dublin. Even with all his trouble, he was beaten only seven lengths for all the money.
Baffert, although disappointed and frustrated, put his usual light spin on it. “Hey, I nailed Lukas for sixth,” he said. A few minutes later, he and his wife Jill stood in the paddock and watched on the screen as E Z’s Gentleman won the 12th race allowance event, cheering on the horse as if he were winning the Kentucky Derby, with Jill jumping up and down. “Well, we got something,” she said.
The following morning, Baffert brought a young visitor and his family to see Lookin at Lucky, and the colt was sprawled out in his stall, oblivious to all the company. “See, this what you look like the next day after you get beat up in the Kentucky Derby,” Baffert said.
After the race, Pletcher said he never dwelt on the 0-for-24 streak and didn’t feel as if a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. He was well aware that the average price of his Derby starters was 29-1 and only four of his 24 starters were under 10-1. He did say that it was important to him because “I wanted to win while my parents were still here to see it. Now, that it’s happened, you just don’t know what to say or feel. I wish I could wax poetically and say exactly how it feels, but it hasn’t really sunk in yet.”
He felt more at home back at the barn posing for pictures and sharing a toast with all his barn help, as they all raised their bottles of Corona to a job well done. Assistant trainer Mike McCarthy also was happy to share the victory with his parents. He was up Derby morning at 3:30 and at the barn before 4:30, getting ready for what he hoped would be the stable’s biggest day ever.
Trainer Ian Wilkes, who was with Carl Nafzger for the Derby victories of Unbridled and Street Sense, stopped by and offered McCarthy some words of advice.
“I can’t stress enough to just enjoy every minute of it,” Wilkes said. “I was here for Unbridled and I never appreciated the magnitude of the Derby. But with Street Sense I was able to take it all in and enjoy it, because I realized how hard it is to get here. Even though you may think you’ll be back here every year, it takes a special horse.”
McCarthy replied, “I’m just happy for Todd. It started off as a very bad week.”
But there is a saying: “A hard fall means a high bounce if you’re made of the right material.”
Todd Pletcher, Calvin Borel, WinStar Farm, and Super Saver will continue bouncing all the way to Baltimore.