Trainer Todd Pletcher

Trainer Todd Pletcher

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Kentucky Derby Trail: Pletcher on Parade

Todd Pletcher has no less that nine horses on the Derby trail.

“And they’re off in the 2010 Kentucky Derby, and it’s Rule going for the lead, followed closely by Super Saver , Eskendereya, and Discreetly Mine. Mission Impazible  is right behind, with Interactif, Aikenite , Doubles Partner, and Connemara racing in midpack.”


Don’t laugh, it could happen. Todd Pletcher, who trains all of them, sure wouldn’t mind it. The point here, beyond the obvious one, is that Pletcher’s four best 3-year-olds all have pretty much the same running style, and the last thing you want in the Derby is to have your best horses all eyeballing each other right from the start. The way he is going these days, the main thing Pletcher has to worry about in the Derby is Pletcher. That is assuming he gets everyone there. We all know how fragile life is on the Derby trail. As Heidi Klum says each week on Project Runway (and forgive me for quoting Heidi Klum): “One day you’re in, and the next day you’re out.”


But for now, no one can be more "in" than Pletcher. On Feb. 20, he surpassed “hot” and ventured into a realm with no known title, so we’ll just call it Derby decadence. All he managed to do Saturday was win the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth (gr. II) with Eskendereya, the Risen Star (gr. III) with Discreetly Mine, and the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) with Connemara. He also finished third in the Fountain of Youth with Aikenite , third in the Hutcheson (gr. II) with Ibboyee, and fourth in the Southwest (gr. III) with Mission Impazible .


But with all the riches comes the pressure of getting different owners to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) with a good shot. Pletcher is well aware that he is 0-for-24 in the Derby, and regardless of how stoic he may seem, you can bet he wants this monkey off his back, just as his mentor, Wayne Lukas, did in 1988.


Pletcher’s young 3-year-olds for the most part have always showed good speed, whether front-running or tactical. Even closers and tactical speed horses like Aikenite, Scat Daddy, Flower Alley, Bandini, Limehouse , and Coin Silver showed more speed early in the year than they normally did or would.


It is interesting to note that the three times Pletcher has finished in the money in the Derby, his horses came from eighth, ninth, and 19th. Of his 10 horses who were running close to the pace (fourth or closer), all were out of the money, with most finishing far up the track and four finishing dead-last. But then again, most of those were Derby pretenders, having little or no shot to win.


This year, you would think he’d be thrilled to have a couple of those big guns rating in third or fourth position and get a Barbaro or Smarty Jones  scenario. The trouble is, one horse having a dream trip can be ideal, but four horses with the same running style all having the same trip could easily turn an ideal scenario into a not-so-ideal scenario.


Pletcher and Nick Zito have already sent five horses to the post in the Derby in a single year and none of the 10 horses finished in the money. When Lukas sent out three starters in 1995 and finished one-three, all his horses had totally different running styles and actually complimented each other. The following year he saddled five horses–one speedball and four closers—and again finished first and third with two of the closers. If Pletcher does get Super Saver, Rule, Eskendereya, and Discreetly Mine to the Derby he might want to get a couple of his closers there as well just in case.


There is one important factor to note at this time, and that is Pletcher’s big four all look to be enormously talented horses who should have little or no trouble getting a mile and a quarter. That should help them settle off the pace when the time comes, but until they show it, you can’t say for sure they will. And if they do, you won’t know if they are going to be as effective having to close for the first time. But with it all, most trainers would give up half their stable to be in Pletcher’s position.


Eskendereya we know has the ability to stalk and then use his speed, power, and stamina to run his opposition into the ground. There is no better strategist than Pletcher, and although we’re getting way ahead of ourselves, he no doubt will scrutinize over the various stakes schedules, plotting the best course for each horse. Come Derby Day, he will analyze his own horses, the competition and post positions, and the possible scenario of the Derby and come up with a plan of attack.


Pletcher said Super Saver, who has yet to start this year, is under consideration for either the March 6 Gotham (gr. III) or Rebel (gr. II) a week later, with the Rebel the more likely of the two to give him the extra week. He also said Interactif, a two-time stakes winner on grass, definitely will make his next start on either dirt or synthetic, with the April 3 Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) a possible target.


The star of Saturday was Eskendereya. Although most everyone mispronounces his name (it is EskenDEAReya, not EskenderAYa), he is now the horse to beat after turning in the first “wow” performance of the year in the Fountain of Youth, drawing off to win by 8 1/2 lengths, while coming home his last three-eighths in a quick :36.46 (:24.13 and :12.33) and earning a lofty 106 Beyer Speed Figure.


The logical question is whether he may have peaked too early. He could run back in the March 20 Florida Derby (gr. I) and then would have six weeks to freshen up a little before gearing up for the Derby. Six weeks is a long time and hasn’t proven successful in five decades, but because he is so powerful and efficient and does everything the right way, he is the type of horse that should not be affected by such a big effort this early in the year and going into the Derby off that long a layoff. Pletcher said the Florida Derby is not definite, and he will look at all the options. The Louisiana Derby (gr. II) would give him an extra week to get over the Fountain of Youth and then have five weeks to the Derby, while the April 3 Wood Memorial (gr. I) would give even more time between races and he’d still have four weeks until the Derby.


In addition to the big names in Eskendereya’s female family, such as broodmare sire Seattle Slew and great-grandsire Alydar, his third dam, Stellar Odyssey, is a half-sister to Kentucky Derby winner Cannonade and a half-sister to Kennelot, who is the dam of Stephan's Odyssey (winner of the Hollywood Futurity, Dwyer, Jim Dandy, and Lexington and second in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes) and Lotka (winner of the Acorn, Queen Elizabeth Challenge Cup and six other stakes).


Stellar Odyssey's dam, Queen Sucree (by Ribot out of Cosmah), is a half-sister to the great mare Tosmah, major stakes winner and top sire Halo (sire of Kentucky Derby winners Sunday Silence and Sunny’s Halo), major stakes winner and top sire Maribeau, and Father's Image (who was a close second to Buckpasser, beaten a half-length, in the Arlington-Washington Futurity).


Eskendereya’s victory was a tonic for owner Ahmed Zayat, whose battles with Fifth Third Bank have been well chronicled. After months of anguish, he finally was able to experience something uplifting, and that was the sight of his horse, decked out in his familiar turquoise and gold silks, drawing away from the best 3-year-olds in Florida and charging into Derby favoritism.


“My wife and my kids were surrounding me as he came down the stretch, and I was so choked up I could only look up to the heavens and wasn’t even able to open my mouth,” Zayat said. “I was completely frozen, and my kids were wondering what’s wrong with me; why I wasn’t showing any emotion. Although I’m an emotional person, I’m normally try to contain my pride and not show any weakness. But as I kept watching him I couldn’t help it; a flood of tears just came pouring down. Where was this performance coming from?


“We knew he was a good horse with a great pedigree, and was training forwardly, but we had no idea how to know that until he met a good field to see what he was made of. Now that we know, it is unreal. The scary part was listening to Johnny Velasquez tell Pletcher after the race, ‘This sucker wouldn’t stop.’ I looked at the horse and he wasn’t even blowing. I swear; there was nothing, not even sweat on him. As amazing as it may sound, this performance took nothing out of him. I remember when I asked Pletcher how he would separate him from his others, he said, ‘I can tell you one thing; this horse will have no issues going a mile and a half. He doesn’t get tired.’”


Any owner on the Derby trail will tell you that is music to their ears.


Other performances


Continuing with Pletcher, Discreetly Mine was able to set a dawdling pace and led a merry-go-round chase, with basically no one changing places. Discreetly Mine was a classy 2-year-old, finishing second in the Champagne (gr. I) and Futurity (gr. II) for Stan Hough before joining the Pletcher barn. You can’t let a horse of this caliber get away with a 1:13.44 three-quarters, running with his ears pricked, and expect him to come back to you. He’s proven he can rate off the pace, and the bottom line is that he was given a gift and he gladly took it. He should only keep improving.


Many of those behind him at the finish deserve another chance. Fourth-place finisher Drosselmeyer, making his stakes debut and dropping back from 1 1/8 miles to 1 1/16 miles, ran an even race, and trainer Bill Mott may run him back in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) or try the Illinois Derby (gr. II) looking for much-needed graded earnings.


Connemara still has a lot to learn, especially getting out of the gate, and the feeling here is that we’re only seeing the proverbial tip of the iceberg with him; he has that much room for improvement. He ducked in at the start and got bumped soundly, dropping back to last. Over a slow racetrack (he’s only run on slow tracks), he threw in a rapid third quarter in :22 3/5 while making a big run around horses. With his huge strides, it didn’t look like he was motoring in the stretch, but he still managed to come home his final eighth in :12 2/5. Pletcher likely will bring him to Turfway Park, where he broke his maiden impressively, to run in the March 27 Lane’s End Stakes (gr. II). How he’ll do on dirt for the first time in the Derby no one knows.


Also pointing for the Lane’s End is turf allowance winner Doubles Partner, who ran a gutsy, hard-nosed race to defeat Lentenor  after getting bumped into the rail by Saint Elgius and then bulling his way through, literally shoving Saint Elgius out of his way. It was as gutsy a performance as you’ll see from a young horse. Doubles Partner just adds to WinStar Farm’s arsenal to go along with Super Saver, Rule, American Lion , and Drosselmeyer. And they had another winner over the weekend in Endorsement, who wired his field by 2 1/4 lengths in an Oaklawn maiden race.


Baffert has been looking to get the undefeated Conveyance  on the dirt ever since the San Rafael Stakes (gr. III), because he wasn’t happy with the way the colt was handling the Pro-Ride. The son of Indian Charlie showed marked improvement in the one-mile Southwest Stakes, breaking fast from post 9, setting a brisk pace, and then opening a clear lead, while striding out smoothly down the lane. Dublin came flying at him down the shortened stretch and was gaining with every stride, but Conveyance dug in gamely near the wire and was still in front as they passed the regular finish line. The 10 furlongs of the Derby is a major question mark for him, but as long he keeps winning, you never know.


It was great to see Dublin return to his form of last summer after undergoing surgery to free an entrapped epiglottis. He bobbled a bit coming out of the gate and was fighting jockey Terry Thompson early. But he finally settled, racing far back in eighth, made a big sweeping move on the far turn, carrying himself very wide, and closed fast to finish second, beaten three-quarters of a length. Finishing up at the sixteenth pole certainly didn’t help him and he’ll appreciate it when they go back to the normal finish line. Between Dublin and Northern Giant, a solid third in the Risen Star, beaten 1 3/4 lengths, Lukas appears to have himself two legitimate Derby hopefuls.


In the seven-furlong Hutcheson, D' Funnybone  returned to his winning ways with a one-length score over A Little Warm in 1:22.14, making it a big day for last year’s Futurity Stakes form. They didn’t close particularly fast, and it allowed A Little Warm, who appeared to be going nowhere turning for home, to get back in the race. Ibboyee made a good run along the inside and hung tough to beaten two lengths.


At Turf Paradise, Indian Firewater, the 1-2 favorite, trained by Baffert, seemed like a sure thing at the head of the stretch, but began laboring badly over the heavy “good” track, and the improving Dixie Commander blew right on by him to win going away by 3 1/4 lengths.


Getting back to the Fountain of Youth, where the heck was Jose Lezcano going on 9-5 favorite Buddy's Saint and what was he thinking? After breaking a step slowly, Buddy’s Saint moved up into a comfortable position along the inside, free of traffic. But then, Lezcano tried to go through a hole that didn’t exist between Aikenite and the rail. Buddy’s Saint bounced off the rail twice and off Aikenite twice, checked sharply with his head thrown in the air and that was the race. He never put in a run of any kind and finished ninth, beaten more than 22 lengths.


This was a disaster for a horse scheduled to have only two Derby preps. It is unlikely he can win the Derby off only one more start, getting virtually nothing out of this race. If he bounces back OK, he has the Tampa Bay (gr. III) in three weeks to try to get back on track, assuming trainer Bruce Levine is thinking along those lines.


Jackson Bend and Aikenite  ran well enough to finish second and third, but they need to show more, especially considering neither one has stamina bursting out of their pedigrees. Aqueduct’s Wood Memorial might be a good spot for Jackson Bend, just as it was for the Zito-trained War Pass two years ago.


Three to watch


Three horses to keep an eye on the next time they run are Stay Put (fifth in the Risen Star), Mission Impazible  (fourth in the Southwest), and Ice Box  (well-beaten fifth in the Fountain of Youth).


Stay Put, like Ron the Greek, had little chance after that 1:13.44 three-quarters (they went in 1:11.75 in the Silverbulletday and 1:12.17 in the Mineshaft on the same card). In addition, he was forced five wide turning for home, ducked in briefly, losing some momentum, and still closed well enough to be beaten 2 3/4 lengths, closing his last two fractions in :24 flat and :06 1/5. He definitely has a shot to bounce back in the Louisiana Derby with a more honest pace, as does Ron the Greek.


Mission Impazible was on a mission impossible breaking from the 10-post in his two-turn debut and racing three-to-four-wide all the way. He was under a strong hand ride a long way out and looked dead in the water when Cardiff Giant went by him from the inside and then Dublin blew right on by him on the outside. He looked like he’d be no better than sixth, especially when Coa went to an early whip, but he found his legs again and came back to finish fourth, actually making up two lengths in the final furlong to be beaten 4 1/4 lengths for all the money. He also should improve with this race under his belt. I love the way he moves and the way he carries himself in general, and he should be sitting on a dynamite performance next time out.


Ice Box  is another who drew poorly, breaking from post 10 in the Fountain of Youth. He was able to drop back to last and tuck in. He launched a strong, sweeping move on the far turn, passing horses rapidly, going from 10th to fourth in an eighth of a mile. But he had nothing left in the stretch. He was beaten a dozen lengths by the winner, but only four lengths for second. Watch for a better race next time with a smoother trip.


Zito, trainer of Ice Box, has another colt to watch in Fly Down, who is now two-for-three lifetime after winning a 1 1/8-mile allowance race at Gulfstream Feb. 21 over a stubborn First Dude . The son of Mineshaft  showed a good turn of foot coming from last in the five-horse field. First Dude ran a terrific race, battling with 3-5 favorite Colizeo the whole way, putting him away and opening a 1 1/2-length at the eighth pole, and then holding on determinedly to be beaten a head. The son of Stephen Got Even hasn’t been worse than second in four career starts.


Other winners of note over the weekend were I've Got the Fever in a one-mile maiden race at Aqueduct with blinkers on; and Unbridled Fury in a come-from-behind, one-length score in a seven-furlong maiden race at Gulfstream.