I have a tradition every year - one of many - that happens in the first week of May. Each year I write an article about the mess that is Todd Pletcher's history in the Kentucky Derby. It's the lowest of low-hanging fruit, but bettors need to hear it. If they are attracted to the otherwise stellar record of Pletcher then they can find themselves betting a price that doesn't accurately reflect Pletcher's massive struggles here. And no, it's not that I hate Pletcher. Actually, I have endless respect for him. It's just incredibly frustrating to see him do the same things every year in this race, getting the same dismal results, and not learning from it. I demand a lot from him because I know that he is more capable than almost any trainer alive.
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Before we get into the bleak statistics, though, I actually have to give Pletcher some credit. He was on track to have five horses entered this year. On the Saturday before the race, though, he made the decision not to run both Malagacy and Battalion Runner. Both are very talented horses with bright futures, but neither were ready for this challenge. In the past many of Pletcher's struggles have come from putting horses in this spot when they can't succeed, so I was both impressed and relieved that he did right by these runners. I'd look for another spot for Patch, too, but I can't be too picky.
So, why do I pick on Pletcher when he's not the only guy who has struggled to win the Derby? Well, he should simply do much better. He has won the Eclipse Award as top trainer seven times since 2004, he has a massive stable stuffed with blue-blood runners, and he is obsessively focused on the Derby. Yet despite a massive volume of runners, he just can't win it. He has had 45 starters in the Derby over the years, which is a ridiculously large number, and yet he has won it only once with Super Saver in 2010. So, his win percentage on the first Saturday in May is 2.2 percent. Over his career, which spans more than 18,700 starts, he has won 22.9 percent of his races. His Derby failings are just ridiculous. Now, many years he has had multiple runners, so he's been assured of having horses that couldn't win even if he did win the race. The fact is, though, that he hasn't won nearly often enough. And, far more damning, too often his talented horses haven't been anywhere near their full potential in this race.
It's a struggle that defies logic. Before going out on his own he was an assistant for D. Wayne Lukas, the most ruthlessly-efficient-Triple Crown-race-winning machine of a stable in decades. He grew up knowing how to dominate these races. And he is a master at getting horses ready for prep races - again this year he was a factor in almost every race he entered horses in.
So, why the struggles? Bad luck is part of it. He tends to get horses to Kentucky that are lightly raced as well, and that lack of experience is repeatedly a factor. Patch, for example, has raced only three times and didn't race at three. That goes against multiple historical trends, and this is far from the first of his horses for which that has been the case. And, for some reason, Pletcher seems incapable of equipping his jockeys with a game plan that is suited to the massive 20-horse field of chaos that is the Derby.
Will the three horses this year be any different? Or will I write another article next year, and just add these three to the long list of disasters? ( odds to win are from BetOnline ):
Always Dreaming (+525): The impressive Florida Derby winner is riding a three-race win streak since being transferred to the Pletcher stable. He's clearly among the best in this race and the best chance Pletcher has had in a while. There is a concern, though. The horse worked brilliantly in his last work, but his galloping since had been almost crazed. He's not behaving and is too dialed in. Less than a week before the Derby they are making a change in morning workout rider and in equipment - a different, more controlling type of reins - in an attempt to calm him down. I get so nervous I almost break out in hives when changes like this are made so close to a major race. I really like the horse, but this gives me pause. At the very least the price I'll need to bet on him is higher than it was.
Patch (+4500): The last horse to win without running as a two-year-old was Apollo back in 1882. Patch debuted on Jan. 15. And he has run only three times - well below what is reasonable for a horse in this spot. Inexperience means he doesn't have the depth of race fitness to draw on, and he hasn't seen nearly enough adversity to have the tools to be trusted to deal with the insanity of the Derby. And he's run in only one stakes race, finishing second to Girvin in the Louisiana Derby. I like the breeding, and the potential is big for this colt, but if he wins here in the face of too many historical trends that go against him then he will do it without my money.
Tapwrit (+3000): After the Tampa Bay Derby he was a star. He dominated that race and seemed like an elite contender. But then he headed to the Blue Grass, and at 2/1 he showed absolutely nothing and wound up fifth. At the risk of sounding unkind, it was a pathetic effort. He didn't look ready, and he didn't look like he cared at all. So, was that just a blip? Or was the Tampa Bay Derby performance, which came against what has turned out to be a pretty weak field, the blip? If you like him then you'll like the price. I don't.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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