LAS VEGAS--When it comes to the Kentucky Derby, count me as being a longtime cynic when it comes to Todd Pletcher.
Nothing against him as a trainer. Pletcher constantly wins big races like the a Hall of Famer that he is – 51 other weeks a year.
Since he is only 1-for-45 in America’s biggest race, I have lived by the commandment “Thou shalt not bet one penny on a Pletcher horse at the Kentucky Derby.” Even though that looks wordy stitched on a throw pillow, it has served me well.
But I learned the hard way last fall on my annual trip to Europe’s biggest race that stubborn rules like that commandment can be costly.
Aidan O’Brien came to the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in France having had only one winner out of the 25 horses he had ever raced there (not counting pace-setting rabbits). Without betting so much as a single, solitary euro on any of O’Brien’s three horses last October, I got burned. Found, Highland Reel and Order Of St. George finished 1-2-3 at Chantilly, giving O’Brien the first such training sweep in the 95-year history of the Arc.
Pletcher is our O’Brien. To put it in baseball terms, he is the Bobby Cox of the Kentucky Derby. As we come to this final weekend of Derby preps, Pletcher is out to defy his own history with as many as five of the 20 horses in the gate for next month’s Run for the Roses.
Yes, Pletcher’s record looks damning. But a deeper dive into his résumé shows that he has never had the post-time favorite for the Kentucky Derby – not even his lone winner Super Saver seven years ago.
This year, when no single standout has emerged from a confusing, underwhelming prep trail, Pletcher may yet have the top two choices in this year’s Run for the Roses with Always Dreaming and maybe Malagacy.
After his Florida Derby victory two weeks ago, Always Dreaming is the new 5-to-1 favorite at Wynn Las Vegas to win the Kentucky Derby and is 9-to-2 off shore.
Still undefeated after winning last month’s Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, Malagacy is 2-to-1 on the morning line to claim Saturday’s $1 million Grade 1 Arkansas Derby on the same course. It is the last major “win and you’re in” prep for Kentucky.
How heady would it be for Pletcher to finally have the horse to beat next month at Churchill Downs?
“It would be sort of uncharted waters for us,” he told me this week in a media teleconference. “Along with that would be a sense of accomplishment in one way to get a horse there that would be considered the favorite. You would probably feel a little more pressure as well as you normally would in most races that you’re favored to win in.”
A 3-year-old colt sired by 2011 Preakness winner Shackleford, Malagacy (emphasis on the first syllable) drew the outside post in the 12-horse field for the Arkansas Derby. But he is actually not favored this weekend.
Last year’s 2-year-old champion Classic Empire returns from a late winter full of hoof and back trouble to race for the first time since February. From post 2 he is the 8-to-5 morning-line favorite for Saturday’s race that has a post time of 7:18 p.m. EDT.
Trainer Mark Casse has heard the skepticism about whether we will see the old Classic Empire on Saturday let alone in four weeks. But if all goes well he said there is no reason to think the skepticism will not turn into optimism.
“I may be a little biased,” Classic Empire’s trainer Mark Casse said. “But I have to think if our horse were to run well and win that he’s going to be the favorite for the Kentucky Derby.”
Classic Empire is by Pioneerof The Nile, the same stallion that sired 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. Confident in the quality and demeanor of his colt, Casse is convinced that a hoof abscess caused Classic Empire to be a sweaty mess on the way to a third-place disappointment 10 weeks ago in the Holy Bull Stakes.
“If he behaves that way again on Saturday, then that’s not going to be good,” Casse told me on that same conference call. “When he is on his game he doesn’t act like that. I had him the other day out grazing him, and people were calling me, and my assistant was watching me, and he goes, ‘You’re scaring me to death.’ I’m on the phone on my left hand, and I’m holding him in my right hand. Horses are going by; he doesn’t even care. Whatever happened that day I have to think it’s the foot. If we see that scenario again, it’s not going to be good.”
Casse, 56, a native of Indiana, has been most successful in Canada and is looking for his first Kentucky Derby win after failing to hit the board with three other entries in as many Derbies.
That is nothing for Pletcher. At 49 he has had four or more horses in a single Derby five times. With Always Dreaming, Malagacy, Tampa Bay Derby victor Tapwrit and maybe Patch and Battalion Runner, this year could be the sixth.
“We’ve taken the approach that this is the race that is the reason why a lot of (horse owners) are in the business,” Pletcher said. “To have that opportunity to have a potential starter in the Kentucky Derby means a lot to the owners. Part of the excitement for us is seeing the enjoyment and the excitement that the owners get having a participant in the Derby, participating in the race, participating in the walkover and in the post-position draw. It’s a very, very exciting time.”
And as he is wont to do every year, Pletcher matter-of-factly and candidly addressed all those defeats.
“We want to do well and we want to win,” he said. “I think our Derby record is not as good as we’d like it to be. At the same token I think we’ve had some horses overachieve on their way to getting there and some cases underachieve in the race itself. We’re also very thankful for the win we have.”
Pletcher did remove one Derby candidate this past week when Southwest Stakes winner One Liner turned in a poor workout preparing for Arkansas. Such pitfalls make Pletcher all the more pleased that his other horses are doing well, especially Always Dreaming.
“Knock on wood in all cases,” Pletcher said. “We’re just really, really pleased with the way he’s developed this winter, and we hope that we can continue to have another 3½ weeks as good as the last 3½ months have been for him.”
Decline of rivals helps Always Dreaming
It is like those cheesy, old comedies when someone gets volunteered after everyone else in line steps backward. Always Dreaming stood idle last weekend while McCraken and Iliad were beaten favorites in their final Kentucky Derby preps.
As a result Always Dreaming stood forward as the favorite in Las Vegas and off-shore futures betting. He was also voted the nation’s top 3-year-old in the weekly National Thoroughbred Racing Association media survey.
Following were the shortest-priced horses Monday in the Wynn Las Vegas futures odds to win the Derby:
5/1 Always Dreaming
9/1 Classic Empire
10/1 Irish War Cry
These are the odds quoted Sunday by Caribbean-based Sportsbook:
9/2 Always Dreaming
6/1 Irish War Cry
8/1 Classic Empire
Always Dreaming got 15 of the 36 first-place votes and 318 points in the NTRA poll to move from second to first. Following are the top 10 in the survey (first-place votes in parentheses) with total points and last week’s ranking:
1. Always Dreaming (15) 318, previously 2nd
2. Irish War Cry (9) 311, 15th
3. Girvin (2) 274, 3rd
4 (tie). Gunnevera (1) 193, 4th
4 (tie). McCraken (3) 193, 1st
6. Gormley (0) 176, 17th
7. Classic Empire (4) 137, 9th
8. Malagacy (1) 133, 6th
9. Unique Belle (1) 96, 7th
10. Practical Joke (0) 88, 12th
As for my vote in the survey, you will not find it here or anywhere. When I was invited some years ago to take part in the weekly vote, I channeled my inner Musburger and said, “To me the most important vote shows up on the tote board.” So I would refer you to the first two lists shown above.
Oh, yes, there is one more Derby prep
Trained by four-time Kentucky Derby winner Bob Baffert, front-running West Coast drew the outside post in the 10-horse field and was made the 3-to-1 morning-line favorite for the $200,000 Grade 3 Lexington Stakes at 5:34 p.m. EDT Saturday at Keeneland.
While it is a Derby prep, it rewards the winner with only 10 points compared with the 100 for the Arkansas Derby. That means unless there is a wholesale dropout of a half-dozen or more horses that will be qualified for the Kentucky Derby, the Lexington will not yield any qualified entrants to Run for the Roses.
That also means even if West Coast wins Saturday, Baffert will not have a horse in the Kentucky Derby for the first time in four years and only the fourth time since his first trip in 1996.
Arrogate still number 1 – with a catch
It was one year ago Monday when Arrogate raced for the first time – and lost for the last time.
More than $17 million later with wins in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Pegasus World Cup Invitational and Dubai World Cup, Arrogate has emerged again as the world’s number-one thoroughbred.
He got a rating of 134 pounds in the Longines rankings, a list of professional handicappers’ evaluations from around the world compiled by the Paris-based International Federation of Horseracing Authorities. Arrogate ranks two pounds higher than Australian turf sprinter Winx. Two of the three next closest horses – Gun Runner and Hartnell – have been no better than also-rans behind Arrogate and Winx. Along with comebacking British turf horse Jack Hobbs, they are 11 pounds behind Arrogate.
But there is a catch here. Like the Timeform figures that have Arrogate ranked first at 141 pounds, the Longines list reflects a rating of each horse’s best race – singular. That is an important distinction that over time has also rewarded fluky performances, such as when A Shin Hikari freakishly coasted over a waterlogged turf course in France last spring and stood as the world’s top-ranked horse most of last summer. He followed that up with finishes of sixth, 12th and 10th to fill out the rest of 2016.
Arrogate and Winx are certainly not flukes, but when looking at the Longines and Timeform lists, it is important to remember just what they are measuring.