Richard Mandella must be shaking his head. He came to Churchill Downs with a champion in Beholder and knew he had one horse to beat in Friday's Kentucky Oaks. The way Dreaming of Julia ran in the Gulfstream Park Oaks, it looked like she, and not Orb or Verrazano or Goldencents, was the best 3-year-old race horse bedded down on the backstretch of Churchill Downs this year.
So Dreaming of Julia gets a miserable trip and Beholder runs big. And it still wasn't good enough.
Super trainer Todd Pletcher didn't win the Kentucky Oaks with Dreaming of Julia or with his second-stringer Unlimited Budget. Nor did he get the job done with recent stakes winner Silsita. No, he went still another notch down the depth chart and won the Oaks with a 36-1 shot, Princess of Sylmar.
How do you beat this guy?
Pletcher has at his disposal the deepest, most talented group of horses in his barn any trainer has ever assembled. He will run five in Saturday's Kentucky Derby and could have run six or seven if he wanted. And that doesn't include Violence, who looked to be the best of his bunch early this year, or last year's champion, 2-year-old Shanghai Bobby. Both were hurt and taken off the Derby trail.
If something goes wrong, there is always a backup plan, another horse. The assembly line never stops churning them out. If Horse A can't get the job done, there is always B, C or D. Maybe even E, F and G.
Dreaming of Julia is still a very good horse, and don't be surprised if she faces and beats males somewhere down the line. She just never had a chance in the Oaks. She was banged around out of the gate, lost position and started to make a move down the backstretch only to run into more trouble. She ran into traffic and had to be taken six wide by jockey John Velazquez. After all that, she just ran out of gas and finished fourth.
"She was very courageous to come in fourth," Pletcher said.
Princess of Sylmar almost didn't even run in the Oaks. Pletcher was concerned that she wasn't handling the track in the mornings and didn't give her the green light until she had a satisfactory work last week. It was another step in what has been a long climb to the top for a filly that lost in her debut, a Pennsylvania-bred maiden race at Penn National in October. She hadn't even run in a graded stakes race until her prior start, a second-place finish April 6 in the Gazelle at Aqueduct. On paper, the only thing she appeared to have going for her was her trainer.
It's well known that Pletcher's record in the Kentucky Derby will not be the first sentence on his Hall of Fame plaque. He's 1-for-31, and some of his most highly regarded horses have run flat-out lousy. He's the top trainer in the U.S. by a mile, and some of the wiseguys are going to throw his horses out in the Derby. That's more than ridiculous.
I'm not picking one of his five horses, either. I like Normandy Invasion and give Itsmyluckyday a big chance. But when it comes to Pletcher and his quintet, nothing would surprise me.
His Derby lineup is even better than what he sent out in the Oaks. Verrazano is undefeated and won the Wood Memorial. Revolutionary won the Louisiana Derby. Overanalyze is the Arkansas Derby winner. Palace Malice ran second in the Blue Grass and Charming Kitten was third in the same race.
Some of his horses look better than others, but none are bums. He has better than 25 percent of the field, and his horses have combined to make $2.56 million this year alone. Soon, his barns at Belmont and Saratoga will be stocked with dozens of 2-year-olds, virtually all of them by the best sires in the U.S. and/or pricey graduates of the yearling and 2-year-old sales.
That's his formula. Corner the market or come as close to it as any trainer has ever come. He has strength. He has numbers. It doesn't always work, but it's an awfully tough combination.