With the strongest racing stable in America, Todd Pletcher enters the Kentucky Derby in a position of extraordinary strength. He will saddle at least 25 percent of the field: Verrazano, the undefeated colt who is the probable favorite; Revolutionary, the formidable stretch-runner who won the Louisiana Derby; Overanalyze, runaway winner of the Arkansas Derby; and two others.
Yet there is a reason to question the chances of the Pletcher contingent. The trainer's previous runners in the Derby have compiled a collective 1-for-31 record, with two seconds and one third. Many have performed dismally: Six times since 2000, a Pletcher horse has finished last or next-to-last.
It's a mystifying record. Is it an aberration, or a sign that there is some flaw in Pletcher's approach to the Derby?
Pletcher said, "People seem to think that I've been training for 50 years. But my first Derby starter was in 2000, and the best I could have done is to win 12 races." He is correct that this is not necessarily a meaningful sample. His former boss, Wayne Lukas, used to be derided for his failures in the Derby but eventually wound up with four victories to his credit.
Pletcher's barn is restocked every year with blue-chip prospects. He dominates the 2-year-old races at Saratoga (where the nation's best youngsters traditionally debut) and he dominates 3-year-old maiden races at Gulfstream Park with his late-bloomers. Pletcher moves his colts around the country like pieces on a chessboard and dominates the prep races leading up to the Derby. Yet by the first Saturday in May, the Pletcher 3-year-olds often don't look so formidable. Remarkably, the trainer has never saddled a Derby favorite before this year, and more than half of his starters have been 20 to 1 or more.
Part of the explanation for the attrition of his forces is sheer bad luck. Pletcher's undefeated colt Algorithms was a brilliant prospect in 2012 before a leg fracture ended his career. Uncle Mo was the best 3-year-old of his generation in 2011, but a liver ailment knocked him out of the Triple Crown. Eskendereya would have been the standout favorite in the 2010 Derby, but he suffered a career-ending leg injury less than two weeks before the race. If these horses had stayed healthy, the racing world might be hailing Pletcher for his mastery of the Derby.
Nevertheless, the Pletcher horses who do run in the Derby rarely rise to the occasion and deliver a peak performance. (Super Saver, his lone Derby success, might be counted as an exception, but Super Saver in 2010 was one of the luckiest Derby winners ever, benefiting from a perfect ground-saving trip while runner-up Ice Box — who deserved to win — encountered insuperable trouble.)
I asked Pletcher if it was possible that his customary training regimen was somehow ill-suited to the Derby.
"I don't think our training methods are wrong," he said. "Hopefully we've learned some things over the years and have included some things that we can do differently. It doesn't guarantee that we can win this year because we [have five starters], but I think it shows that at least our methods of getting to this point are pretty effective."
But getting to the Derby is not the same as winning the Derby, and the form of Pletcher horses often seem to be on a decline by the date of the main event.
I can offer one possible theory to explain Pletcher's poor record in the Derby and the rest of the Triple Crown series. (He is 0 for 7 in the Preakness and 1 for 11 in the Belmont Stakes.) His training philosophy emphasizes the importance of spacing horses' races, giving the animals plenty of time to recover from a hard effort. His runners are at their best after a rest. Pletcher horses laid off for more than 90 days have compiled an exceptional record in graded stakes, winning 30 percent of the time over the past five years. By contrast, his horses coming back after a month or less win graded stakes at an18 percent rate.
Pletcher can usually manage horses' schedules so that they get the optimal amount of time between races. But he doesn't have that luxury with his 3-year-old Derby prospects because they must go through a demanding series of prep races to be fit on the first Saturday in May. (Perhaps it is significant that Pletcher's 2007 Belmont Stakes winner, Rags to Riches, was a filly who, because of her gender, had not been subjected to the prep-race grind.)
To prepare for the 139th Derby, Verrazano has had a tough schedule that is atypical of a Pletcher runner. He made his career debut Jan. 1, and subsequently raced Feb. 2, March 9 and April 6. After dominating his rivals in his first three starts, he had to work hard to win his most recent, the Wood Memorial Stakes, by less than a length despite an easy trip. The trajectory of his form resembles that of Gemologist last year, who won all of his races but was hard-pressed to win a slow Wood Memorial and then finished 16th in the Derby.
Pletcher is such a skillful trainer, and he has so many good horses, that he is bound to start winning Derbies as Lukas did. His 1-for-31 start will look like a statistical oddity, and theories to explain his lack of success will be disproved. But until he definitively turns the tide, handicappers should look warily upon Pletcher's 3-year-olds, even the potential stars such as Verrazano.