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Don't sleep on Pletcher in Derby preps

Ron Flatter  
VSiN.com

Noble_Indy_photo_Leslie_Martin_via_GP
Noble Indy (4), ridden by John Velázquez on Jan. 11 at Gulfstream Park, is one of three Todd Pletcher-trained colts racing in Kentucky Derby preps this weekend. (Photo by Leslie Martin courtesy of Gulfstream Park.)

Las Vegas

Don’t be completely blinded by the light from the west. If bettors are looking for a Kentucky Derby winner six weeks out, maybe they should look to a trainer who sneaks in from the eastern shadows.

Yes, Bob Baffert is in California training three of the top five Derby futures choices at the Wynn Las Vegas. But Todd Pletcher is in Florida trying to repeat what he did last year with Always Dreaming by making a late but bold entrance into the Derby preps.

After sending Magnum Moon on a impressively victorious trip to last week’s Rebel Stakes in Arkansas, Pletcher reloads Saturday with Noble Indy and Hyndford in the $1 million Grade 2 Louisiana Derby and Sunday with Prince Lucky in the $800,000 Grade 3 Sunland Derby.

“It’s that time of year to find out where we stand,” said Pletcher, who also has his Holy Bull winner Audible waiting to roll next weekend in the Florida Derby.

Between Magnum Moon (10-1), Audible (15-1) and Noble Indy (30-1), Pletcher has three of the 20 shortest-priced horses at the Wynn, which offers 157 choices for the Kentucky Derby. Pletcher’s 3-year-olds carry a little more value than Baffert has with the Derby favorite McKinzie (7-1), Justify (8-1) and Solomini (12-1).

This weekend Pletcher is looking for his fourth Louisiana Derby win, but he might not have the post-time favorite. Coming in off a third-place finish in the Risen Star last month on the same track, the front-running Noble Indy (7-2) is second in the morning-line estimate to deep closer My Boy Jack (5-2), a horse that was not even supposed to be in this race.

After he won the Southwest Stakes last month My Boy Jack looked like he would be back at Oaklawn Park for an encore in last week’s Rebel.

“When you win over a track it makes sense to run right back there,” said trainer Keith Desormeaux, whose brother Kent rides My Boy Jack. “But (managing owner) Sol Kumin brought up a good point. The Rebel is not an equal weights race, so off a graded-stakes win we would be at an immediate disadvantage. The Louisiana Derby is equal weights, and there are twice as many (Kentucky Derby) points offered.”

Saturday’s race at 6:21 p.m. EDT in New Orleans will be the first prep this season to award 100 points to the winner and 40 for second. That makes it a “win and you’re in” for Kentucky – and also a “finish second and you’re probably in” race. It is also nine furlongs as are most of the rest of the Derby preps. They literally provide the next step forward for 3-year-olds since they have never raced this far before. They will add 110 yards now – and another 220 when they get to Kentucky.

The added distance should be less of a challenge for a late finisher like My Boy Jack than it will be for pace-setters like Noble Indy, one of three pure speed horses in the Louisiana Derby.

“We feel that (Noble Indy) continues to mature and make progress,” Pletcher said. “It seems like he’s really maturing the way we want him to.”

Ridden by career earnings leader John Velázquez, Noble Indy’s presence means that all three horses that hit the board in the Risen Star are back for the Louisiana Derby. Long-shot winner Bravazo (7-2) drew the rail for 82-year-old trainer D. Wayne Lukas, and runner-up Snapper Sinclair (9-2) returns for trainer Steve Asmussen.

Hyndford (8-1) might be overlooked as the “other” Pletcher in the race, but his stock rose with stable mate Magnum Moon’s victory last week. He lost the lead in the stretch but still finished second to Magnum Moon in an optional-claiming race last month at Tampa Bay Downs. Joe Bravo, who had been committed to the now-injured Avery Island, now gets the ride on Hyndford.

Last seen in January at the Fair Grounds, a relatively new addition carries Pletcher’s hope Sunday to get his first win in the Sunland Derby near El Paso, Texas. Prince Lucky (6-1) comes in off a hopelessly wide trip to finish seventh in the Lecomte for trainer Larry Jones. Right after that, owner Daniel McConnell transferred the colt to Pletcher.

Sometimes seen as a less competitive consolation path to Kentucky, this year’s Sunland Derby at 7:15 p.m. EDT Sunday came up better than it might appear at first blush. Maiden winner Hollywood Star (6-1) has been in four consecutive graded stakes for trainer Dale Romans, but he shares third billing on the morning line behind the early speed of Sham runner-up All Out Blitz (4-1) and Asmussen’s stakes debutant New York Central (9-2).

On the other hand Prince Lucky, Choo Choo (8-1) and the speedster Runaway Ghost (8-1) are the only winners of $100,000 stakes in the field of 12 – and Choo Choo’s was not even on real dirt. Half the Sunland Derby field, including the favorite All Out Blitz, is still eligible for races limited to non-winners of anything but a maiden race.

Yet it is still a pathway to Churchill Downs, a road that Pletcher has navigated so well so many times. And after finally breaking his 1-for-45 schneid with Always Dreaming’s win last year, Pletcher proved to his clients – and himself – that he was not just about getting there. He has now won the Kentucky Derby twice. But as Pletcher told VSiN last fall, these prep races are not to be minimized.

“The Derby itself is a fantastic race, but we’ve had a lot of success as well in the preps leading up to it,” he said. “There’s a lot of great races leading up to the Kentucky Derby with very significant purses. A big part of our program has been participating in those races, and by doing well in those races it earns you a berth in the Kentucky Derby.”

Racing notes and opinions

Carrying Baffert’s hopes for a fourth win in the race, West Coast (3-2) is the futures favorite in European markets to win next weekend’s $10 million Dubai World Cup. Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Forever Unbridled (8-1), Gunnevera (14-1), Mubtaahij (20-1) and Pavel (25-1) are also among the pre-entries from America. Eleven other U.S.-based horses are also on the nine-race, $27.25 million card next Saturday at Meydan.

An inflamed foot is keeping Sharp Azteca from making the trip to Dubai for next Saturday’s Godolphin Mile. Last year’s Cigar Mile winner got hurt during a recent workout. Connections say they will point the 5-year-old horse to the Met Mile on Belmont Stakes day.

Cracksman, a finalist for European horse of the year in 2017, will not race in next weekend’s Dubai Sheema Classic. Instead trainer John Gosden plans on sending the British Champions Stakes winner to the Prix Ganay next month at the rebuilt ParisLongchamp.

Longtime Pennsylvania jockey José Luís Flores died Thursday after being taken off life support at a hospital in Philadelphia. Flores, 57, suffered severe head and spinal injuries when he fell off his mount Monday in a race at Parx. A native of Perú, Flores won four riding titles in the ’90s at Penn National. The Jockeys’ Guild said that Flores was the 157th rider to die in a racing accident since it started keeping track in 1940.

Breeders’ Cup directors rejected a plan to split the championships in two with separate events in November and December. In other words, common sense prevailed, and racing fans already wrestling with rising takeout rates and dwindling fields the other 363 days of the year will not have to make two trips if they want to attend the full Breeders’ Cup.

Responding to a controversial finish to last year’s Betting Challenge, the Breeders’ Cup has tweaked its rules to require more widespread wagering and to prevent collusion. After Nisan Gabay won the 2017 BCBC by betting on only two races, each player will be required now to wager on at least 10. New language regarding collusion was added after claims and counter-claims of players working with one another against the spirit of the competition. The first change seems worthwhile, but unless they build sound-proof booths and ban hand-held devices, we wish them luck trying to enforce the second one.

A stolen 1969 Preakness trophy was recovered by police based in Delray Beach, Fla. Alicia Murphy, 60, was jailed on suspicion of busting into dozens of storage facilities, one of which had the prize that was discovered at an auction house in New York. The trophy was inherited by the daughter of Frank McMahon, who owned Majestic Prince. All this begs the question what is a Preakness trophy doing in a storage unit? At least it was not the Woodlawn Vase.

This racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s guests include Fair Grounds handicapper Joe Kristufek, who previews the Louisiana Derby and discusses his many roles in racing, and actress/singer Anita Gillette, who remembers when she used to print a racing tout sheet and go to the races with the late Jack Klugman. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and Stitcher.

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