He won't turn 40 until next year, yet soon they'll be making space for Todd Pletcher's plaque in the Hall of Fame. He's dominated Saratoga for years and is a force at every distance in every division. Long, short, dirt, grass, layoffs and shippers, the relentlessly focused Pletcher can do it all. He's won Eclipse Awards, money titles and Breeders' Cup races, but never a 3-year-old classic.
Part of the charm of the Kentucky Derby is how hard it is to win, even for the great ones. D. Wayne Lukas, Pletcher's mentor, sent out 11 losers before he got the roses in 1988 with Winning Colors. After finishing up the track last year with Flower Alley, Coin Silver and Bandini, Pletcher is 0-for-12 in America's Race.
He did help produce a Derby winner, although his name wasn't on the trophy. Pletcher did much of the hands-on work in 1995 with Thunder Gulch, who gave Lukas the second of his four Derby triumphs. There's nothing Pletcher would like more than to win one of his own. He's not obsessed with it, but being shut out is pretty annoying, especially for a world-beating trainer.
"I'm a little perplexed sometimes," Pletcher said Tuesday. "I think everybody thinks there's some secret formula that one guy figures out every year of how to win the Kentucky Derby. It's just not that simple.
"There are so many variables that go into play. The most important thing is you might show up on a given day, and you might have the best horse, and you might get stuffed.
"The pace scenario is so important. You see a horse like Point Given finish off the board in the Derby, and he was the best 3-year-old of that generation by many lengths, as you saw in the Preakness, Belmont and the Haskell."
There are seven weeks left before they'll run the 132nd Derby on May 6, and no 3-year-old looks remotely as good as Point Given did five years ago. On Saturday, the culling process will continue with four Derby preps in New York, Florida, Arkansas and Southern California. Pletcher will send out Keyed Entry in the Gotham at Aqueduct and Bluegrass Cat in the Tampa Bay Derby. ESPN will show those races on tape delay, plus live coverage of the San Felipe Stakes from Santa Anita and the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park from 6-7:30 p.m. ET.
I'll be watching closely but I doubt if I'll be betting much on the four preps. I do like a horse at Tampa Bay Downs, though. I'll go with the 4-year-old filly Laurafina in the Hillsborough Stakes, at 1 1/8 miles on the grass, in the race immediately preceding the Tampa Bay Derby.
Last week: Went 1-for-3, with English Channel connecting at odds of 9-5, and $5.60 seemed generous considering his so-so opponents and the way he won.
Grade III Gotham Stakes (1 1/16 miles)
Traditionally, the Gotham has been a one-turn mile on Aqueduct's main track, but this year it's two turns on the inner because the main isn't opening until March 28. Achilles Of Troy has beaten nothing but he's 3-for-4 on the inner and his numbers are strong. Keyed Entry is very quick but has never been around two turns. He beat the highly touted First Samurai in the slop at 7? furlongs last time at Gulfstream, and he may be overbet off that effort. Either way, neither horse will offer much value.
1. Achilles Of Troy 2. Keyed Entry 3. Greeley's Legacy
Grade III Tampa Bay Derby (1 1/16 miles)
Bluegrass Cat has good tactical speed but doesn't need to be in front early, and his price will be much smaller than his morning-line odds of even money. He's won over the track at the distance and appears to lay over a weak, largely unproven field. I'll be taking notes but not wagering.
1. Bluegrass Cat 2. El Lobo 3. Storm Treasure
Grade III Rebel Stakes (1 1/16 miles)
Lawyer Ron will be favored and I have doubts about him, because there's enough speed in here to compromise his front-running style. The wild card is Private Vow, who is proven at the distance and has done little wrong in his six-race career (4-for-6, 1 second). In his only dud, he had a major excuse, a broken rein that caused him to bolt on the backstretch in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. He'll be fresh in his 2006 debut and may put early heat on Lawyer Run. The beneficiary of a hot pace could be the closer Steppenwolfer, who nearly caught Lawyer Ron last time, falling short by less than a length in the mile Southwest Stakes.
1. Steppenwolfer 2. Private Vow 3. Lawyer Ron
Grade II San Felipe (1 1/16 miles)
Bob Baffert sends out three of the nine starters in this final prep for the Santa Anita Derby. His best colt, and one to watch from now until the first Saturday in May, is Bob And John. He has the pedigree (by Seeking the Gold out of a Deputy Minister mare) and the numbers to be a threat in the classics. He'll be too short a price to play here, but a big effort should validate his place on a top five list for the Triple Crown series. His stablemate Point Determined (by Point Given) should fill out the exacta.
1. Bob And John 2. Point Determined 3. A.P. Warrior