One trainer has four horses – a quarter of the field – in this year’s Kentucky Derby. Surprisingly, his name is Todd Pletcher, and not Bob Baffert.
It’s one of those counterintuitive Derby facts that most casual horse racing fans stumble over. And it’s not their fault. Nor is it surprising, considering Baffert is the face of the sport and is tied for the most Derby wins by a trainer in event history.
And yet, here’s Pletcher, preparing to pad his record for most Derby starters by a trainer. Barring any mishaps, the two-time winning Derby trainer brings Known Agenda, Dynamic One, Bourbonic, and Sainthood to Saturday’s 147th Derby. All four will largely be off the pace, but all four seek a spot with Super Saver (2010) and Always Dreaming (2017) as Pletcher Derby winners.
Pletcher’s current record sits at 55, which means he’ll be pushing 60 Derby starters when we do this all over again next year.
The Derby comes with ‘anxiety and excitement’
“I think anytime you come into the Derby, whether you had a win or not, you come in with some anxiety and excitement, and look forward to the preparation,” Pletcher said on a National Thoroughbred Racing Association conference call last week. “And everything kind of becomes a little more important in this big situation.”
Think about Pletcher’s embarrassment of Derby riches for the moment. There are good trainers who get one, maybe two, Derby starters in a career. It’s luck, mixed with lightning-in-a-bottle good timing, overlaid with opportunity. If you don’t get the latter, the opportunity, the other two elements don’t matter.
And Pletcher has four. In one Derby. It’s not an outlier either. This is the fourth time Pletcher started four Derby horses. He’s sent five out twice. Each time he’s sent four out, at least one has hit the board.
Pletcher’s best bet is Known Agenda — even on the rail
First among equals is Florida Derby winner Known Agenda, the 6/1 third favorite. The fact Known Agenda drew the dreaded post 1 – the rail – is mitigated by a trio of factors. First, the new 20-stall gate that replaced the hybrid 14-stall main gate/six-stall auxiliary gate after the 2019 Derby. That pushes the gate away from the rail, which doesn’t make the avalanche of horses coming down nearly as bad.
Second, Known Agenda’s running style is a stalker/closer. He can save ground, bide his time and not force matters. As Pletcher pointed out after Tuesday’s draw, Known Agenda handled traffic in the Florida Derby “very professionally.” And third, three-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. is at the reins.
Known Agenda comes in with a two-race winning streak, winning a Gulfstream allowance by more than 11 lengths, then parlaying that into his decisive Florida Derby victory. That cleansed Pletcher’s palate of his disappointing fifth in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes and a third in the Grade 3 Remsen.
Two decisive wins after adding blinkers
“Well, I think a lot of his maturity has come with the addition of blinkers,” Pletcher said. “But I think, in addition to that, a lot of it has to do with just natural progression and maturity, both mentally and physically on his part.”
Then, there’s Dynamic One, who jumped from breaking his maiden in early March – on his fourth try — to nearly winning a Grade 2 Derby prep a month later. At 20/1 in the Derby, some consider him a sleeper to hit the board.
Even at 15/1, he was Pletcher’s top Wood Memorial candidate. And Dynamic One was feet away from winning the Wood until 72/1 stablemate Bourbonic caught him at the wire.
“Dynamic One has always trained extremely well,” Pletcher said. “We’re a little frustrated with his early races. He’s a horse that tethered himself to us in the mornings, and wasn’t quite polishing it off in the afternoons. But I thought like when he broke his maiden at a mile-and-an-eighth, that went in the right direction. I think he’s a colt that not only improved, but has always shown a lot of ability.”
Pletcher’s Sainthood is a dark-horse
The same could be said for Sainthood (50/1), who’s drawing his share of sleeper exotic money. That’s understandable, given his gritty, never-surrender running style born for a 20-horse equine frolic like the Derby. An offspring from Mshawish’s first crop, Sainthood is one of those closers who could find a down-ticket spot on a trifecta or exacta.
In the Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park, Sainthood was just about to pull out for his stretch run when traffic closed the hole. He slowed down, recovered, and closed furiously to finish second to Like the King.
“He was a little unlucky,” Pletcher said. “He got his momentum stopped at the top of the stretch. But then, he was finishing fast, as he always kind of ran out of ground. So he’s a colt with a lot of talent. My biggest concern is that he’s had a lack of experience, having only three starts.”
Pletcher still coming to grips with Bourbonic
That brings us to Bourbonic (30/1), who shocked Pletcher when he came out of the clouds to give the Hall of Fame trainer his sixth Wood Memorial win. Shocked him into sheepishly admitting that he didn’t even bet on the 72/1 long shot, let alone put him on the Derby radar.
“He’s a well-bred colt (son of Bernardini). And really, the Wood Memorial was his first opportunity to get to run a mile-and-an-eighth, which he simply relished,” Pletcher said. “We were taking a shot trying to qualify for the Derby. And we’re fortunate he stepped up and ran a big race.”
You won’t see any of Pletcher’s quartet near the front. All of them are stalkers, closers, or deep closers, which will likely hurt his chances of victory in today’s speed-favoring Derby climate. He said Sainthood and Dynamic One will be closer to the front, with Known Agenda hanging “kind of in the back-end of the second tier.”
Not one Derby-eligible horse until late March
As for Bourbonic, “we’re going to try and apply the same tactics we did in the Wood, which is sit back and make one run.”
Speaking of making one run, the irony here is that Pletcher didn’t have a Derby-eligible horse at the beginning of March. That’s when the serious Derby preps kick in. By the first full week of April, he had four.
“We would still be preparing these horses for other races even if it weren’t the Derby,” Pletcher said. “But like I said, anytime there’s a race just like the magnitude of the Derby, you’re a little more anxious about it. But it’s a good kind of anxious and excitement.”