Throughout the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) prep season, there was no hotter barn than that of Todd Pletcher’s. The powerful trainer saddled seven winners in major 3-year-old graded stakes, setting him up with a seemingly unlimited number of legitimate Derby threats.
As recently as three days ago, Pletcher was entertaining the thought of sending as many as seven starters to the May 1 classic, including Eskendereya, who would have been the first favorite he would have ever sent to the Derby starting gate. Hardly a Derby conversation could be had without the words, “Pletcher is loaded,” being uttered.
What a difference a few days can make.
On Tuesday, April 27, just five days before the Kentucky Derby 136, Pletcher stood outside of Barn 34 at Churchill Downs to speak about several topics. There was still a hoard of media surrounding the always accommodating trainer, but instead of answering questions about having the horse to beat, Pletcher was talking mainly about a filly—who may now hold his best hope—and a group of other hopefuls that aren’t multiple graded stakes winners.
Gone is Eskendereya, who was declared out of the race on Sunday after being diagnosed with filling in his leg. Also out is two-time graded stakes winner Rule, who Pletcher decided was not training well enough to merit a trip to the starting gate. Also on the bubble is Interactif, a horse who has run his best races on turf but seems to have taken to the wet track. A decision on Interactif’s status won’t come until Wednesday morning, just before the draw.
If Interactif is entered, that would still leave Pletcher with five chances, tying his own record for number of starters in a single Derby. Most trainers would love to be in that position for the nation’s biggest race, but all of a sudden the ultra-strong hand Pletcher once held is not so intimidating anymore.
“I feel very good about how our horses are doing coming up to the race,” Pletcher said. “It is a different mindset though, knowing you had the favorite in a race like this (a few days ago). We’re used to dealing with multiple injuries every day. It’s not a whole lot different than what we do every day; it’s just that the stakes are a whole lot higher.
“That being said, we’re still very excited about the opportunities we have and how they are doing. Ultimately, that’s all you can do—put them in the best position.”
It is hard to tell which of his remaining starters has the best chance. Pletcher feels strong that Glencrest Farm’s Devil May Care deserves a chance based on how she has trained against his top colts and the fact that he believes she will relish 10 furlongs. But the daughter of Malibu Moon is lightly raced and has never faced colts in a race when it’s counted. She remains a wild card and even Pletcher admits he won’t know how she will handle facing 19 other colts May 1.
“I think she fits very well (in the Derby)," said Pletcher. “If you look at her Bonnie Miss, where she ran greenly after making the lead and still ran faster than the Florida Derby two races later, she's shown her races are competitive with the colts. I've had the opportunity to train her against the colts and she's done very well.”
Pletcher is also feeling good about the way Super Saver and Mission Impazible are coming into the race. Super Saver, who he trains for WinStar Farm, won the Kentucky Jockey Club (gr. II) at Churchill last year, was a solid second in the Arkansas Derby (gr. I) last out, and has by all accounts looked solid in the mornings this week.
“I think he’s in the best form he’s been in since last year,” Pletcher said. “We were kind of playing catch up a little bit. I thought he really needed the Tampa race (grade III Tampa Bay Derby, third), he moved forward in the Arkansas race, and from what he’s showing us in the mornings he’s ready to make another move forward.”
Mission Impazible, who runs for Twins Creeks Racing Stables, is also coming into the Derby well. Pletcher said the son of Unbridled's Song may be flying a bit under the radar despite winning the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) last out.
“I think he’s a horse that improves with every start,” Pletcher said. “I like his tactical style. It’s going to suit the race well because he has the speed to kind of clear himself of some of the traffic, but he’s not a head strong horse that’s going to get involved in the early pace, which on paper appears to be pretty quick. And I like that he won going a mile and an eighth at the Fair Grounds. Not only did he finish well but he had something left at the wire. I thought that was a kind of underrated performance.”
Pletcher also spoke highly of E. Paul Robsham’s Discreetly Mine, who he admitted may have been overworked going into the Louisiana Derby when finishing fourth. And he was pleased that all five of his potential starters have trained well over the sloppy track this week, which could remain wet with rain in the forecast for Saturday.
All that being said, Pletcher, a well-documented 0-for-24 with Derby starters dating back to 2000, would much rather be in the position he was in a few days ago.