Kentucky Derby 2007: Top Trainers
by Trevor Whenham - 03/30/2007
As much as the Kentucky Derby is about horses, it's also about the colorful and egotistical men who train them. Men like Charlie Whittingham, D. Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito are already legends in the biz. Bob Baffert is good for as many colorful quotes and fascinating comments as anyone in sports. Todd Pletcher is the Tiger Woods of his game these days, piling up wins in significant races pretty much at will. The only problem is that he doesn't have a single Triple Crown race victory in his trophy case. Those are about the only three races he hasn't won, but they are the three that matter most.
As is always the case this time of year, the toughest choice for some trainers is which horses they will send to Louisville, while others are just wishing they had a single possibility. Here's a look at the prospects of four of the bigger name trainers:
Todd Pletcher - The king of the training ranks has an absolute embarrassment of riches in his stable this year. If he can't win the Derby with the cards he has been dealt here then he may never be able to win it. Arguably the best horse in the stable, Any Given Saturday, is the one that may struggle to get into the race because he doesn't yet have the graded stakes earnings he needs to secure a spot. He'll have a chance to solve that problem before the Derby, though, and he looks to have the talent and the durability to thrive in the rigors of the Derby trail.
If that horse doesn't do it for you then maybe Circular Quay does. It was getting frustrating cheering for him after setbacks in the Breeders' Cup and his debut this year, but he redeemed himself with an impressive Louisiana Derby win. Scat Daddy won the Fountain of Youth against one of the toughest fields of any prep race this year, and he'll have a chance to prove himself in the Florida Derby. King of the Roxy is talented, but the distance is his biggest question. He won at 7.5 furlongs this year, and he was 8th in his longest race, the BC Juvenile. Cowtown Cat is taking the New York route to the Derby, with a win in the Gotham. That race was 1 1/16 miles, and he looks like he'll handle more distance with ease. Sam P. is the rawest horse in the stable, but he has a stride that absolutely devours ground. If he can figure out the racing game he could be deadly.
If all that's not enough, Pletcher also has a filly in his barn that looks as good as any three-year-old lady has at this time of the year in quite awhile. Rags to Riches has won three times this year, and she was so clearly of a different class than any other horse on the track in each race that it was scary. The plan now is to aim her for the Kentucky Oaks, but that could change if the Derby class thins out.
Doug O'Neill - O'Neill isn't as much of a household name as many trainers, but he was second in earnings last year. His stable includes the great older horse Lava Man, and included Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Thor's Echo. O'Neill's prospects for the Derby aren't as good as Pletcher's, but they're pretty close. The top horse is probably Great Hunter. He won the Robert B. Lewis off of a four-week layoff, and did so despite reportedly being at only 80 percent. Notional has two wins this year, but he isn't getting a lot of credit for one of them. He beat Circular Quay in the Risen Star, but Pletcher's horse got in some serious trouble and had to run much further than Notional. That's probably not fair, because Notional did manage to win from the 12 post.
The last horse is Liquidity. There's a lot to like about the horse, but he hasn't managed to win a graded stakes yet, and he was a very disappointing sixth in the Louisiana Derby. All three of those horses are owned by the same owner, J. Paul Reddam, so O'Neill doesn't have to worry about balances the needs and demands of several wealthy benefactors like Pletcher does. The other horse O'Neill has on the trail, Cobalt Blue, has a very famous owner - Merv Griffin. He wasn't viewed as a top-level horse until a dominating win in the San Felipe. He'll try to find his way to Kentucky via the Illinois Derby, the same route that produced Derby winner War Emblem in 2002.
Bob Baffert - Baffert's had a great run in Kentucky, but he'll be hard pressed to continue his streak this year. EZ Warrior shows some promise, but something strange is going on with him. He hasn't run since January. He's reportedly healthy, but his stud rights were sold to Coolmore Stud, he hasn't run since the sale and it's unclear when, or if, he'll pop up again. Another Baffert runner, Law Breaker, was the favorite heading into the WinStar Derby, but he was scratched and new plans haven't emerged.
Carl Nafzger - This former bull rider is one of the more interesting characters on the trail this year. He rose to prominence in 1990 when he trained the great Unbridled to a Derby win. He's semi-retired right now, he only works with a few horses himself, and he has an approach to developing horses and picking races that is certainly unique. One of his few horses is Street Sense, the horse that crushed the very strong Breeders' Cup Juvenile field. Street Sense is perhaps the biggest enigma on the trail - he has two impressive wins, but he got perfect trips along the rail in both. One thing that is certain is that a perfect trip in the Derby is practically impossible. It remains to be seen how Street Sense will do if he has to overcome adversity.