It’s only been four months, but Todd Pletcher somehow is on pace to have the best year of his career.
Given that in just 23 years, his horses have already won more money (nearly $359 million) than any trainer in history, how can he be doing better than he always does — which is just about always better than anybody?
His horses are winning 30 percent of the time (the equivalent of a .400 hitter in baseball), his best ever strike rate, and they have already won $8 million. It could be a ton more after this weekend.
The seven-time Eclipse Award winner as champion trainer has started 48 horses in the Kentucky Derby, but he has never brought a group like this to Churchill Downs. He has the winners of the Florida Derby (Audible), Arkansas Derby (Magnum Moon), Wood Memorial (Vino Rosso) and Louisiana Derby (Noble Indy).
Later this year, Pletcher, 50, will send out his 20,000th starter. He has won 4,552 races.
He won the Derby and Belmont Stakes in 2017 and it was an off year for him. The bar is just set so high.
He was 0-for-24 in the Derby until Super Saver won in 2010. He was 1-for-45 before Always Dreaming won last year. But as he accurately points out, he is really 2-for-17 because he enters multiple horses just about every year. And you can’t win the Derby twice in the same year unless, of course, two of your horses finish in a dead heat. If that ever happens, it will almost certainly be Pletcher. It is also worth noting he is 1-for-1 with favorites. That would be Always Dreaming.
Pletcher has two Hall of Fame jockeys on Audible (Javier Castellano) and Vino Rosso (John Velazquez). He has two of the game’s hottest riders on Magnum Moon (Luis Saez) and Noble Indy (Florent Geroux).
Pletcher had three horses in last year’s Derby, but made no secret he fancied Always Dreaming. It is less clear who the trainer thinks is the best of this bunch. It is interesting to note that Johnny V. chose to ride Vino Rosso over Audible and the great rider is one of the smartest people in the sport.
“We always felt strongly that more distance is going to be in his favor and he should relish the mile and a quarter,” Pletcher said of Vino Rosso. “I think he’ll stay a mile and half as well.”
If Vino Rosso wins, Pletcher and Velazquez will be the first trainer-jockey combination to win the Derby in consecutive years since Lucien Laurin and Ron Turcotte teamed up to win with Riva Ridge (1972) and Secretariat (1973).
Castellano had been riding Derby contender Bolt d’Oro, but chose Audible in the end, probably as much out of loyalty to main client Pletcher as his thoughts on the relative merits of the horses.
“I love the way that he attended pace in the Holy Bull [Stakes at Gulfstream Park] and the way he dropped off the very fast pace of the Florida Derby, so it shows his versatility,” Pletcher said of Audible.
Noble Indy looked hopelessly beaten in the stretch of the Louisiana Derby before coming back to win.
“I don’t think you see too many horses, regardless of how much experience they have that can get passed by a neck or half a length and then reengage and fight back and be able to put his head back out front,” Pletcher said.
Magnum Moon, along with favorite Justify, is one of two unbeaten horses in the Derby. And like Justify, Magnum Moon did not race as a 2-year-old.
“To go from a 6-furlong maiden on January 13 to now being 4- for-4 and winning the Arkansas Derby in his fourth start just tells you a lot about the quality and the natural ability that he has,” Pletcher said.
You’ve heard the name Apollo so much this week you’d think he is running Saturday. Actually, he won the 1882 Derby, just a month after making his first start. No horse has won the Derby since then without racing as 2-year-old.
“But I think when the right horse comes along, it will happen,” Pletcher said.
He might have the right horse. Or Justify’s trainer Bob Baffert might have the right horse.
“The Apollo thing, I mean, it comes up a lot,” Baffert said. “Back in the day, people used to run their horses much earlier. And I think it’s changed. Trainers, they take their time. They don’t run them as early 2-year-olds anymore.”
They don’t run them much at all anymore, but they all want to run in the Derby. That never changes. Nor does Todd Pletcher winning big races. Maybe even another Derby early Saturday evening.