Is This Pletcher's Year at the Derby?
by Trevor Whenham - 04/18/2008
You might not like the guy, but it is hard to argue that Todd Pletcher is the best trainer in the thoroughbred game these days. After all, he has won four consecutive Eclipse Awards for being the top trainer in the country, he has piled up an impressive stack of meet titles at the top tracks in the country, and he has set and surpassed records for annual wins and earnings. There is a glaring hole in his list of accomplishments, though - he has never won the Kentucky Derby. He's had lots of tries, but at this time last year he hadn't even won a Triple Crown race. That changed in the Belmont last June when the spectacular filly Rags to Riches nosed out Curlin.
The lack of a Derby win has to be a sore point for Pletcher. This is unquestionably the most important race in the world, and a trainer hasn't really arrived until he has won the roses. Pletcher's lack of success isn't due to a lack of effort. He has had 19 runners in the big race, including five in last year's edition. He's come close a few times, with results like Bluegrass Cat's second-place finish to Barbaro in 2006, and a third by Impeachment in 2000. Not only has he never won, though, he's never even had a favorite. Given the sheer volume of horses he has trained that is somewhat surprising. It seems pretty likely that the streak of not having a favorite will continue for another year. It's also entirely possible that his losing streak will continue as well.
Pletcher has two horses aimed at the Derby, and a third may join them with a good performance in the Coolmore Lexington Stakes this weekend at Keeneland. The Lexington is the last big chance for horses to earn the money needed to get into the starting gate at the Derby, and this year it has drawn a large and impressive field including Pletcher's Atoned.
The horse that will lead Pletcher's attack on the dirt at Churchill this year is Monba. This is a horse that has shown flashes of brilliance surrounded by enough inconsistency to raise questions and cause headaches. He is the son of Maria's Mon, the two year old champion of 1995 who died last September. Monba's dam, Hamba, is the daughter of 1989 Derby runner-up Easy Goer, and granddaughter of 1978 runner-up Alydar, so the breeding for success is certainly in place. He's a rare horse that has prepped on both sides of the country. As a two year old he won two races in Kentucky, including one on the Churchill Downs track. He moved to California for his final outing as a two year old in the CashCall Futurity. He finished fourth behind likely Derby entrant and Santa Anita Derby winner Colonel John, among others, but the race was much more impressive than the placing. He got bumped very badly, but showed much more composure than most horses his age to close hard for his final position. That performance put him on the radar of Derby watchers.
The wheels fell off next time out. He was the favorite against a strong field in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream, but he never fired and ended up 12th and last. Many people gave up on him at that point, but it was a race too early to do so as it turned out. He came out next in the Blue Grass Stakes on the synthetic surface at Keeneland. Against another strong field including heavy favorite Pyro, Monba prevailed in stretch drive with stablemate Cowboy Cal. Now he's off to Kentucky. He'll get lots of attention, but there is one big question - can he handle the dirt? He won on the dirt against lesser company last year, but this year he has fired on synthetics and bombed on dirt.
If Monba is confusing, Cowboy Cal is even worse. He was just edged out by Monba in the stretch at the Blue Grass, and that is what earned him the spot in the Derby. The problem is that the horse has never shown any form at all on dirt. He tried to break his maiden on the dirt at Saratoga last summer, and it was a disaster. He moved to the turf where he broke his maiden and then added two stakes wins and a second. From there he went to the Polytrack at Keeneland which might look like dirt but acts more like turf than the Derby surface. Cowboy Cal unquestionably has the stamina for the Derby, and he has early speed that could come in handy against the massive Derby field, but his ability to run on dirt is a total gamble for handicappers.
Atoned has the best foundation of any of Pletcher's horses this year - he ran seven times as a two year old. It was the last of those starts that was the most notable. He clipped heels with another horse and almost went down, but recovered to finish second to Court Vision, an impressive horse. He had a lot of promise, but he didn't really live up to it this year. He was second in the Tampa Bay Derby, and then fell to fourth in the Illinois Derby. He'll be the likely favorite heading into the Lexington, and he likely needs a top two finish to move onto the Derby just two weeks later.
Pletcher has come into the Derby more loaded in past years, but the Derby is so wide open and uncertain this year that pretty much anything could happen, including a much-needed win by the otherwise outstanding trainer.