LOUISVLLE, Ky. —
Being forced to scratch the favorite six days before the Kentucky Derby would torment some guys for a lifetime. Todd Pletcher set aside four hours, tops. Maybe because he had six other horses waiting back at the barn.
Most trainers have stables. Pletcher has an organization.
At any moment during the year, he’s got a hundred horses running — or ready — at a half-dozen tracks stretching coast to coast. It’s a miracle he can remember even half their names. What he never forgets to tell himself is that every time a door closes on one opportunity, another swings open somewhere.
Pletcher arrived at the Churchill Downs backstretch around 4:30 a.m. Sunday and learned definitively that Eskendereya’s still-inflamed left front leg meant the muscular colt’s work week was done. No matter. By 8:30, right on schedule, most of his remaining Derby entries headed over to the racetrack to begin theirs.
Somehow, his luck tumbled downhill from there. On Monday, Pletcher scratched Rule. On Wednesday, just a few hours ahead of the post-position draw, he said so long to Interactif.
“We’re still very blessed,” Pletcher said. “We got four really nice horses going over there. We lost the big horse, but we got some nice ones, so we’ve got to stay focused and keep moving forward.”
It’s no coincidence that Pletcher is a D. Wayne Lukas disciple, down to the crease in his jeans. During a six-year apprenticeship, he watched his mentor turn the sport on its head. Racing fans wanted magic, but Lukas relied on science. They liked their trainers folksy, but he was corporate. Quality mattered, sure; but quantity was a much better way to make sure your ticket was always punched for the first Saturday in May.
So it’s no coincidence, either, that the two men are the only trainers ever to saddle five horses in a single Derby. Or that Lukas went seven years and zero-for-12 before winning the first of his four titles here. And that Pletcher, whose first Derby entry was Impeachment in 2000, arrived this year zero-for-24.
“I’ve heard it so much, honestly, it doesn’t faze me. It’s something we haven’t achieved. It’s something to look forward to and to keep trying for. If I’m fortunate enough to win it, I don’t think I’ll feel any differently,” Pletcher said.
“Honestly, if we win on Saturday, I don’t think I’d be any better of a trainer than I am today. Maybe,” he added, “we just show up with the right horse.”
That’s the intriguing thing about all the comparisons to Lukas, especially this year.
Scratching Eskendereya freed up jockey John Velazquez to ride another Pletcher entry, a filly named Devil May Care. When Lukas broke his oh-fer at the Derby in 1988, it was with a filly named Winning Colors. He went on from there to become the most decorated trainer of his era. Over that time, the only thing he did more than win was come up with colorful alibis to cover all his losers.
Now a few months shy of 75, Lukas was back in front of his barn Wednesday morning for his 25th Derby. In truth, he hasn’t been a serious contender for a decade. But that didn’t stop Lukas from touting this year’s entry, a colt named Dublin. He did much the same with Flying Private last year, only to watch the horse frolic home dead last.
“I think he’s every bit as good as any of them,” Lukas said about Dublin, though several hours later, oddsmaker Mike Battaglia rated him behind five others at 12-1.
Asked to assess the strengths of the four remaining horses on Pletcher’s “team,” none got a full-throated endorsement from the trainer. He lauded 10-1 shot Devil May Care for her “positive mind frame”; 15-1 shot Super Saver because “he likes this track”; 20-1 shot Mission Impazible for “moving forward at the right time”; and 30-1 shot Discreetly Mine because “with the right trip it might be his day.”
Pletcher said similar things about his five-horse entry in 2007. His highest finish was a sixth with Circular Quay. He’s finished last five times and next-to-last twice.
“What’s the worst that can happen this year?” Pletcher joked when it looked as if he would send seven horses to the post. “We can go 0-for-31?”
Not any more. The worst he can do is 0-for-28, but who’s counting?