Todd Pletcher Horses Dominate Kentucky Derby Field
by Trevor Whenham - 4/29/2013
Todd Pletcher is the king of thoroughbred racing. The trainer has been the leading trainer in the country by earnings seven times since 2000, including the last three years. He has a significant lead this year, too. He’s a polarizing figure in the sport despite his success, though.
I’ll openly admit I can’t stand the guy, and I take pleasure in the struggles of his horses. Love him or hate him, though, there is no denying that he is the biggest story of this year’s Kentucky Derby.
Getting a horse to the biggest of races is exceptionally tough. Bob Baffert looked like he had a loaded stable earlier in the winter, but he is shut out of the race. Steve Asmussen has 31 more wins than any other trainer in the country this year, but he doesn’t have a starter, either. It’s undeniably impressive, then, that Pletcher will have five horses in the starting gate (barring injuries). Even more incredible, though, is that both Verrazano and Revolutionary have a shot at being the favorite in the race, Overanalyze is coming in off a win in a major prep race, and Palace Malice and Charming Kitten are both intriguing contenders. Pletcher doesn’t just have also-rans. He has the class of the field.
The problem for Pletcher, and the fuel for his critics, is that this is far from the first time he has come to the Derby loaded. He has had 31 runners in previous editions in the race. Just once — with Super Saver in 2010 — has he come out on top. That’s just not very good. He has managed to finish dead last five times, meanwhile, and Super Saver is the only one of his last 17 starters over the last six years that has finished better than sixth. He is just not very good at getting horses ready for this biggest stage — the average finishing spot for his 31 starters is 11th. The reasons for that are mystifying since he has won the biggest races outside of the Derby, and he can be trusted to win a Breeders’ Cup event or especially a stakes race in New York without hesitation.
In 2007, Pletcher again brought five horses to the Derby, including highly-regarded runners Circular Quay, Any Given Saturday and Scat Daddy. Circular Quay was the best of the lot while finishing sixth. In 2010, when he won with Super Saver, he had three more strong horses entered, and they finished ninth, 10th, and 13th. Quantity and quality have not been closely related in Pletcher’s Derby career to this point. Can that change this year? Let’s look at his five mounts (futures odds are from Sportsbook.ag):
He has been projected to be the Derby favorite for months now, and he comes into the race undefeated. Lately, though, it seems as if his support is softening as people question whether he is really worth the risk. The biggest knock against him is that he didn’t win as a two year old. That might not seem like a big deal, but some exceptionally good horses have failed to overcome that handicap, and no horses in the modern era have won without at least one two year old start. He also had to work a lot harder to hold off Normandy Invasion to win the Wood Memorial than many would have liked. Still, he has never lost, his breeding is strong, he is visually stunning, and he’s a major contender.
Revolutionary won the Louisiana Derby, he has a solid foundation of two year old success, he has stamina galore in his pedigree, and he has shown flashes of more than adequate speed for a Derby win. What will really draw the bettors’ attention, though, is that Calvin Borel is on board. Borel isn’t riding great right now, but fans won’t care. He has three Derby wins and was aboard Super Saver for Pletcher’s only win. His hyper-aggressive, rail-hugging riding style is one that should suit Revolutionary. The horse will be horribly over-bet, but he’s a contender.
Overanalyze won the Arkansas Derby, so Pletcher has the winners of three of the five biggest Derby prep races in his arsenal this year. That race is a bit of a handicapping nightmare, though. On one hand, he won it fairly convincingly. The problem, though, is that the race was at a truly glacial pace. His Beyer speed rating for the race was just 88, which is very low for this level of horse. Was he just doing what he needed to? Or is his best well below the rest?
Palace Malice (+2500)
This is a tough horse to judge. His breeding is brilliant and very well-suited to this race. He showed real flashes of potential early in his career. His run in the Risen Star was disappointing, though — he finished third. Then he was a mystifyingly awful seventh in the Louisiana Derby. Pletcher ran him back two weeks later, and he looked much better in finishing second in the Blue Grass. That was on a synthetic surface, though. This horse looks like a runner, but we just haven’t seen it yet.
Charming Kitten (+4000)
Ken and Sarah Ramsey are very successful and likable breeders and owners. This horse, like most that they run, is a homebred — a son of the successful Kitten’s Joy, who the Ramsey’s also owned and bred. It would be very satisfying to see these two celebrating a win. It’s hard to see how it happens with this horse, though. He would need to make a massive leap forward from what we have seen just to be competitive.
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