(Originally published in the February 27, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)
It seems funny to say fillies took a backseat to the boys, but after the big news of a possible race between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta dominated headlines, it was prep races for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) that took center stage Feb. 20.
Todd Pletcher has been one of racing’s leading trainers the past decade, though the sport’s biggest prize, the Derby, has eluded him. He is certainly not the only trainer who has won many big races but not the Derby. He is the most prominent active trainer, however.
Pletcher has started 24 horses in the Derby since 2000, and has two seconds (Invisible Ink, 2001; Bluegrass Cat, 2006) and a third (Impeachment, 2000) to his credit. He has never started the favorite in the Run for the Roses.
Of the five Derby preps run Feb. 20 in Florida, Arkansas, California, and Louisiana, Pletcher won three. Thus, the trainer who nominated the most horses, 20, to the 2010 Triple Crown by the Jan. 16 early deadline is again pointing 3-year-olds down different paths that all lead to Louisville, Ky., the first Saturday in May.
The most visibly impressive of the group was Eskendereya, who edged away in the turn of the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) and cruised to an 8 1/2-length score. Having won all three of his starts on dirt, the son of Giant’s Causeway—Aldebaran Light, by Seattle Slew, is certainly bred to handle the 10-furlong distance of the Derby.
Eskendereya was purchased for $250,000 at the 2008 Keeneland September yearling sale by Zayat Stables, which has been in the headlines recently for a different reason—the racing arm of Ahmed Zayat has filed for bankruptcy protection. And nothing could help an owner get out of bankruptcy faster than to own a Derby winner.
Two of the three Derby hopefuls Pletcher sent out on the day are by Giant’s Causeway, the other being Connemara, who won the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) for his third win in four starts. The colt, out of the Mr. Leader mare Satin Sunrise, races for Michael Tabor, Susan Magnier, and Derrick Smith. Magnier’s husband, John, is the principal in the Irish-based Coolmore operation, which stands Giant’s Causeway (by Storm Cat) at its Ashford Stud in Kentucky.
Pletcher’s third score came with Discreetly Mine, who won the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) at Fair Grounds. A son of Mineshaft, Discreetly Mine is a homebred owned by E. Paul Robsham Stables. The colt made his first five starts for trainer Stan Hough before being sent to Pletcher.
The Pletcher group does not stop there. In Steve Haskin’s Derby Dozen, four of his top six are trained by the 42-year-old Texas native, the above mentioned trio as well as the WinStar homebred Super Saver (by Maria’s Mon), who has yet to make his 3-year-old debut. Super Saver won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) at Churchill Downs, home of the Derby, by five lengths in November.
The Pletcher stable also includes some other top 3-year-olds: Rule (by Roman Ruler), another WinStar homebred, who has won four straight including the Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III); the Wertheimer family’s Interactif (by Broken Vow), a graded stakes-winning turf horse who may get his shot on dirt (you are only a 3-year-old once); Dogwood Stable’s Aikenite (by Yes It’s True), who was third in the Fountain of Youth; Anstu Stables’ Ibboyee (by Medallist), who ran third in the Feb. 20 Hutcheson Stakes (gr. II) won by D’ Funnybone; and Twin Creeks Racing Stables’ Mission Impazible, who ran fourth in the Feb. 20 Southwest Stakes (gr. III).
Pletcher has won Eclipse Awards and trained Eclipse Award winners; he was the first trainer to surpass $20 million in earnings in a year; he broke records set by his mentor, D. Wayne Lukas, for stakes wins and graded stakes wins in a year…but he has never won the Kentucky Derby.
This could be his year.