Todd Pletcher’s burgeoning success, fresh horses and other story lines for Churchill Downs.
LOUISVILLE – Although Gronkowski, the horse, had little realistic chance of winning the Kentucky Derby, the mere possibility that Rob Gronkowski, the party animal, might grace the Churchill Downs winners’ circle would have made this a Derby Week unlike any other in recent memory.
Horse racing, at the level it takes to get to the Kentucky Derby, is mostly a playground for the elites. There are long-shot stories here and there, reminding us from time to time that glory on the first Saturday in May can’t be bought, but this is by and large the country club of country clubs.
Truth be told, horse racing could use a few more Rob Gronkowskis around the backstretch. The last time someone with that kind of broad appeal had a central role in the Derby was 1992, when MC Hammerowned Dance Floor had the lead at the top of the stretch before finishing a solid third to Lil E. Tee.
With Gronkowski pulling out of the race last week because of a minor illness just a few days after the Patriots tight end bought a minor stake in the horse, this is not a Derby loaded with story lines that will draw in the casual fan. But if rooting for titans of industry, old money, Kentucky bluebloods and royal families of the Middle East is your thing, you’re in luck!
In many respects, it’s a Derby without an underdog. Todd Pletcher, who seems to get an armada of expensive Thoroughbreds in his barn each year and wins big races with them coastto-coast, comes with four top contenders. Bob Baffert, a fourtime Derby winner and the only trainer in the recent era to crack the Triple Crown code, has the horse everyone’s excited about in Justify.
Ahmed Zayat, the owner of American Pharoah, is back in the Derby with Solomini.
Mike Repole, who made a fortune in Vitaminwater and has brought several contenders to Churchill in recent years, will have a couple of more good shots with Vino Rosso and Noble Indy. And WinStar Farm, a mega-successful stud and racing operation, has an ownership stake in three of the favorites and bred another.
At first blush, this seems like an insiders-only kind of Derby. But as the week begins, here are three big things to keep in mind heading into the May 5 race.
Pletcher can change the narrative forever
Although he had seven Eclipse Awards to his name as the nation’s top trainer, Pletcher was widely viewed as a Derby Day disappointment heading into last year’s race. He had brought 43 horses to the Derby over a decade and a half, many of them expensive yearling purchases, and come away with one win: Super Saver in 2010.
Although Pletcher attracts plenty of owners with the Derby on their minds, his style is uncompromising. He doesn’t rush horses to the track as 2-yearolds. And he doesn’t give them a punishing schedule of prep races, which made some handicappers question whether his horses had enough foundation of endurance to handle 11⁄ miles on the first Saturday in May.
But now Pletcher is a twotime Derby winner after Always Dreaming routed the field last year, and he flat-out admitted after the race he needed that second win to validate his career. (Always Dreaming hasn’t won in four starts since, but that won’t go on his Wikipedia page.)
Bottom line: If Pletcher gets his third Derby win this year, putting him right on the heels of Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas, it will be impossible to quibble with the record.
And he’s bringing about as strong of a hand as a trainer could have. Pletcher’s horses won the Arkansas Derby (Magnum Moon), Wood Memorial (Vino Rosso), Florida Derby (Audible) and Louisiana Derby (Noble Indy).
Apollo is going to come up a lot
A lot of the old theories about what kind of horse can win the Kentucky Derby have gone by the wayside as the sport has changed in the last couple of decades. As recently as 1987, for instance, Alysheba had run 10 times before the Kentucky Derby, including a final prep in the Blue Grass just nine days earlier. That kind of schedule would be unheard of now.
In fact, the trend recently has been toward lightly raced colts and a training approach that keeps horses fresh for the Triple Crown. Always Dreaming didn’t break his maiden until last January. American Pharoah had just five races before the Kentucky Derby and only two preps as a 3-year-old. If you transported those horses back to, say, 1990, a number of trainers would tell you there’s no way those horses could have been fit enough to run 11⁄ miles.
One of the last backstrech bromides to die has been the socalled “Curse of Apollo.” Apollo won the Derby in 1882 without racing as a 2-year-old. Nobody else has done it since.
That will change at some point; maybe even this year.
Justify, who made his debut Feb. 18, was about as impressive as a 3-year-old can be in winning the Santa Anita Derby. He’s just 3-for-3, but he’s for real — and he has the modern master in Baffert guiding him.
Similarly, Arkansas Derby winner Magnum Moon looks like he’s legit. After breaking his maiden first time out on Jan. 13, he breezed through an allowance race at Tampa Bay Downs and then won the two big prep races at Oaklawn that launched American Pharoah to the Triple Crown.
Can Europe/Dubai finally claim the roses?
There have been plenty of high-class European horses to make the trip across the Atlantic and try the Derby. None of them have won. Similarly, the UAE Derby — a 11⁄ mile prep on dirt in Dubai — has produced tantalizing possibilities but no winners. (Notably, last year’s UAE Derby winner Thunder Snow just refused to run when the gates opened and decided to prance around in the slop instead.)
Every year, American horse players hear that “this is the year” a horse can pull it off despite the unconventional preparation and long journey overseas. But this might really be the year.
Mendelssohn, who came over from the U.K. to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf last year on grass, certainly has the pedigree to be great on dirt: Purchased for $3 million at auction as a yearling, he’s a half-brother to the great mare Beholder, who won 11 Grade 1 races. Mendelssohn dominated the UAE Derby in his dirt debut, winning by 183⁄ lengths, and looks like an intriguing contender.
Justify, ridden by Mike Smith, was impressive winning the Santa Anita Derby.