Trainer hopes to end winless streak at Derby
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The best trainer never to win the big one gets another chance Saturday.
Todd Pletcher, the nation's most successful conditioner, has tried -- and failed -- to win the Kentucky Derby with 19 horses.
He will look to snap his seven-year drought when two of his horses, Monba and Cowboy Cal, leave the gate for the 134th Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs.
"I have a tremendous appreciation," he said, "for how hard it is to win."
How difficult• Pletcher has had more horses finish dead last in the Derby (four) than finish in the money (three).
Winning will be tougher this year. Pletcher will saddle a pair of long-shots. Monba, with Ramon Dominguez up, is 15-1. Cowboy Cal, ridden by John Velazquez, is 20-1 in a full field of 20.
The two Pletcher trainees, who finished 1-2 in the Blue Grass Stakes, both arrived on Wednesday after preparing for the Derby on the Polytrack at Keeneland. Pletcher was the last trainer to arrive at Churchill Downs.
"I think both of these horses are doing extremely well right now," Pletcher said Thursday. "I noticed a change in the way they were training and the way they were eating (at Keeneland), and their overall demeanor seemed better. I do think for some reason horses tend to get over their races a little quicker coming off the Polytrack. I think they bounced out of the Blue Grass very well."
Both have significant hurdles. Cowboy Cal is leaving from the No. 17 post, which has never produced a Derby winner.
|The Todd Squad|
|Todd Pletcher has saddled 19 previous horses for the Derby and never won. He's had more Derby runners finish dead last than finish in the money.|
Monba, who leaves from the No. 14 spot, is only one race removed from a last-place finish in the Fountain of Youth, beaten by 39 lengths. The son of Maria's Mon (who also sired 2001 Derby winner Monarchos) underwent throat surgery after the 12th-place disaster and rebounded to win the Blue Grass. Another setback for Monba is that Hall of Fame jockey Edgar Prado, who rode Monba in each of his past two races, decided to ride Adriano in the Derby.
Pletcher, 40, who has earned the past four Eclipse Awards as the nation's top trainer, has always said winning the Kentucky Derby does not define his base of operations. His sprawling training empire stretches from coast to coast. He employs about 150 people and trains nearly 200 horses.
But every spring he is queried about his lack of success on the first Saturday in May. He understands the emphasis on the 1 1/4-mile race.
"I think it's the world's greatest race," he said. "It's the one that everyone wants to win the most. It's the most exciting, the most glamorous and all those things."
Pletcher has a lot of company when it comes to missing the roses. Only three trainers in Saturday's race have won a previous Derby -- Nick Zito, Barclay Tagg and Michael Matz.
Matz, who trained 2006 Derby winner Barbaro, is just happy to be back in the race, with 20-1 Visionaire.
"At the beginning of the year, I never thought he'd be at the Derby," he said. "Whether he's good enough, who knows• But stranger things have happened."
Pletcher has sent out Derby runners in seven of the past eight years, but the best he could manage was a pair of second-place finishes, with Invisible Ink in 2001 and Bluegrass Cat in 2006.
Pletcher saddled a record-tying five starters in last year's Derby but could do no better than sixth, with Circular Quay. His other horses finished eighth, ninth, 18th and 20th.
It marked the second consecutive year that a Pletcher trainee finished last.
His winless streak is unprecedented. Every other trainer who has saddled more than 10 Derby starters has won the race at least once.
Pletcher ended his Triple Crown frustrations (0 for 28) when filly Rags to Riches upset Curlin in the Belmont Stakes, but the Derby has continued to elude him.
"We've been fortunate to be here in most years since I've been training," he said. "I appreciate how hard it is to get in. How hard it is getting horses ready to just get here with graded earnings. It's a very exciting event."
In fairness, none of Pletcher's 19 previous runners was the best horse in the race. Scat Daddy (7-1) last year, Bandini (7-1) in 2005 and Balto Star (8-1) in 2001 were the only horses to leave the gate at odds of 10-1 or less.
"We've shown up and had some horses run very well," Pletcher said. "We've also probably brought horses that simply weren't good enough. I think we've done a good job of preparing them. We just haven't been fortunate enough to win one yet."
The race will continue a hectic spring for Pletcher, who four weeks ago didn't have any serious Derby prospects.
But in a seven-day span beginning April 12, Monba and Cowboy Cal took first and second in the Blue Grass Stakes -- the first 1-2 finish by a trainer in 37 years -- and Behindatthebar won the Lexington Stakes.
Pletcher will skip the Derby with Behindathebar, pointing him toward the Preakness Stakes on May 17.
"Neither one of my horses would be in this race if it wasn't for the Blue Grass," he said. "All I know is my two horses ran well and came out of the Blue Grass well, and that's why we're here today."