Derby drive:

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - NEWS - Dan Wolken Colum­nist USA TO­DAY

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.

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