143rd Kentucky Derby: Mentor and pupil battle for roses at ‘most exciting 2 minutes in sports’
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — If it’s May, Todd Pletcher must be at Churchill Downs preparing a horse — or several — for the Kentucky Derby.
Just once since he first took a crack at America’s greatest race in 2000 has the trainer missed the Derby. Pletcher saddles three starters in Saturday’s race: Always Dreaming, Tapwrit and Patch. That will tie him with mentor D. Wayne Lukas for most starters in Derby history at 48.
Pletcher is 1 for 45 going, his lone victory coming in 2010 with Super Saver. Lukas is a four-time Derby winner, but doesn’t have a horse this year.
“The Derby is the goal for many of our young horses. It will continue to be the goal,” Pletcher said on a rainy Thursday at Churchill Downs. “It’s like a shooter in basketball: Just because they’re not going in all the time, you don’t stop shooting. The only way you’re going to make a basket is to shoot. Forget what your percentage is, keep shooting.”
Lukas often tossed numbers at the Derby. The Hall of Fame trainer and former high school basketball coach had five starters in 1996, when he won with Grindstone, and three on five different occasions, including 1995 when he won with Thunder Gulch.
Pletcher has followed in Lukas’ footsteps. The 49-year-old trainer had five starters in 2007 and 2013. Three times he’s had four starters, twice he’s had three and six times he’s had two.
It’s not that Pletcher believes every horse he enters has a chance to win. With 20-horse fields, many owners get a case of Derby fever and overestimate their horse’s ability to withstand running 1 ¼ miles in chaotic traffic for the first time.
“It’s hard to tell an owner who has that chance not to do it,” he said. “They may never see that opportunity again.”
If the first Saturday in May hasn’t been Pletcher’s finest hour, the rest of the racing calendar is dotted with his victories in major races. He’s twice won the Belmont Stakes, the final leg of the Triple Crown.
He has a knack for developing colts and fillies into Grade 1 stakes winners at an envious clip. He’s racked up a record of more than $336 million in purse earnings and won seven Eclipse Awards as the nation’s leading trainer, another record. He’s won over 4,200 races in a career that began at age 7, cooling out horses for his father.
Later, Pletcher went to work as a groom for Lukas. He was promoted to foreman and then assistant trainer before going out on his own. Lukas ran a tight ship, and his influence is evident in Pletcher’s neat-as-a-pin barn and in the younger trainer’s well-groomed, well-dressed appearance.
This year, Pletcher’s best Derby hope appears to be Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming, the early co-second choice at 5-1 odds. The colt has won three of five career starts, but he’s been fractious in morning gallops, the opposite of his trainer’s always cool demeanor.
In an effort to harness Always Dreaming’s energy, Pletcher switched to longer reins. At first, the colt resisted, bucking and jerking when fitted with them. He calmed down his second day.
“The reins basically give the rider more leverage,” the trainer said. “It allows him to control his head more; to take it down (while galloping).”
Pletcher’s go-to rider, John Velazquez, will be aboard Always Dreaming, who makes his first start in five weeks Saturday.
Tampa Bay Derby winner Tapwrit and one-eyed Patch don’t need special equipment.
Tapwrit has worked well leading to the Derby. Patch, owned by famed Calumet Farm, lost his left eye because of infection. He has one win in three career races, all this year, and finished second to Girvin in the Louisiana Derby.
Patch will try to buck tradition Saturday. No horse since Apollo in 1882 has won the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old.
Pletcher brings his own history to the race, and it goes way beyond the numbers.
“If you’d have told me when I started out that when I was 49 years old I’d have won a Kentucky Derby, I’d have signed on for that right on the spot,” he said.
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