Let's get this out of the way first:
Todd Pletcher needs to win the Kentucky Derby to get the monkey off his back, to put his demons to rest, to silence his critics. Pick whichever cliché you'd like, Pletcher has to get the roses this time or he will continue to be labeled as the best trainer in the country who can't get it done on the biggest day.
There will be no excuses for Pletcher this year. He will have five or six in the starting gate--at least 25% of the field--including the prohibitive favorite, Eskendereya, and another four or five horses somewhere between the odds of 15-1 to 30-1.
Starting now and through the next two weeks, all eyes will be on Pletcher and his powerful stable of 3-year-olds. He will make all the headlines for Derby 136 and his every move will be followed in Louisville from this point forward.
Derby or bust.
OK, I'm glad we got that out of the way.
The real point of this article is not to put more pressure on a man who already must feel as though he has a mountain on his shoulders, but to praise him for one of the most outstanding training jobs we have ever seen leading up to the Derby.
What Pletcher has done through the last two months of 2009 and the first three-plus months of 2010 is nothing short of amazing. His domination of these Kentucky Derby preps is unprecedented. Weekend after weekend his horses have fired, and Derby or no Derby, we must acknowledge his terrific accomplishments. Let's review:
Over the past two months, Pletcher 3-year-olds have won seven of the 21 graded Derby preps at one mile or more on dirt (or synthetics), or 33%. It began with a win by Rule in the Feb. 13 Sam F. Davis and ended Saturday with a score by Exhi in the Coolmore Lexington. In between, Discreetly Mine (Risen Star), Connemara (El Camino Real), Mission Impazible (Louisiana Derby), and Eskendereya (Fountain of Youth and Wood) won their respective preps.
Going back to the final five weeks of 2009, Pletcher also scored major prep wins with Super Saver in the Kentucky Jockey Club and with Rule in the lucrative Delta Jackpot. In those nine races, his winners have earned an astounding $2,183,832. And that only counts his winners. It doesn't take into account the money those same horses and others have earned for finishing in the money in races like the Arkansas Derby, Florida Derby, Lane's End, etc.
I have covered nearly all of the aforementioned races and each time I found myself saying the same thing, ‘Wow, Pletcher is on a roll. How much longer can this last'? It ended with me shaking my head at Keeneland on Saturday after Exhi wired the field at nearly 20-1 in the Lexington Stakes. At which point, I turned to a colleague in the press box and said, "We are all idiots. A Pletcher horse goes off at 20-1 in a Derby prep and we didn't have him'? We should all be shot'.
To recap, Pletcher will have no excuses if he doesn't win the Derby this year. His 0-for-24 record in America's most important race is well documented, but this time he rolls in holding his strongest hand, by far. He has a lot to prove.
But before we focus all of our attention on the Derby over these next two weeks, let's take Pletcher's accomplishments for what they are: A job very well done.
Does he have a large string of powerful owners at his disposal? Does he get many of the best 2-year-olds in his barn every year? Does he have luxuries that most trainers can only dream of? Yes to all of the above. But let's give credit where credit is due. Pletcher has had 24 Derby starters--soon to be 30--over the last decade in large part because of his skill. He knows how to develop young horses. He knows how to manage a large stable. And he knows how to put his horses in the right spots.
Two weeks out, it is anyone's guess whether Pletcher will win Derby 136. But let's give the guy a hand for at least putting himself in a spot where few others ever could.