LOUISVILLE, Ky. - He's the CEO of a thoroughbred empire that has dominated American racing for most of this century, relentlessly churning out top-class runners on every surface in every division. No trainer produces quality in quantity like Todd Pletcher.
At only 47, he owns seven Eclipse Awards and the record for purse earnings. Pletcher has sent out the most winners at a meeting 36 times, so when he doesn't, that's news. He's so big that for years Todd has been a first-name guy, like LeBron.
Like King James, who didn't earn his first ring until his ninth season, Pletcher spent many years chasing his sport's biggest prize, the Kentucky Derby. From 2000-09 he was 0-for-24 before his breakthrough with Super Saver, one of his record-tying five runners in 2010. That day you never saw anybody happier to be 1-for-29.
Pletcher is back at Churchill Downs with a solid shot at Saturday's 141st Derby. On Wednesday he's expected to enter Blue Grass Stakes winner Carpe Diem, undefeated Florida Derby champion Materiality and two long shots, Louisiana Derby runner-up Stanford and Fountain of Youth winner Itsaknockout.
In any other year, Carpe Diem's 4-for-5 record, including three stakes trophies, would make him the favorite, but he'll be the third choice behind Bob Baffert's pair of American Pharoah, who's being touted as the next superstar, and the 6-for-6 Dortmund.
Carpe Diem and Materiality are Pletcher's best chances to challenge Baffert's stars. The talent of the Todd Squad's top two is undeniable, but Carpe Diem's temperament and Materiality's inexperience are worrisome.
Twice Carpe Diem has been reluctant to enter the gate. "Two-turn races start in front of a big crowd, and I think that excites him a little bit,'' Pletcher said. "But the gate crews know how to handle him, and so far, it hasn't affected any of his performances.''
If he got edgy prerace at little Tampa Bay Downs, how will Carpe Diem react to a claustrophobic paddock scene and a screaming, alcohol-fueled mob of 160,000? A Derby runner upset by noise is like a mountain climber afraid of heights. In danger.
"It's a little bit difficult to correct because he won't display the problem in the mornings,'' Pletcher said. "We're hoping that will carry over to Saturday, as well. He's settled in beautifully, and he had a good session at the gate [Tuesday] morning.''
Materiality is a serious colt with plenty of upside -- 3-for-3, including two stakes at 11/8 miles.
"He was under the radar a bit,'' Pletcher said, "until he jumped into the mix in a big way when he was able to handle a mile and an eighth in only his second start.''
But Materiality didn't debut until Jan. 11, which raises a red flag for students of history. Not since Apollo in 1882 has a Derby winner been unraced as a 2-year-old. Eventually that 133-year trend will end, but what odds would be good enough to make you bet that Materiality will be the one to do it?
Much has been made of Pletcher's 1-for-40 Derby record, but some of the criticism is unfair. He has entered multiple horses 12 times, so in terms of years, he's 1-for-14. Although he gears his 3-year-old program to the Triple Crown, he doesn't force-feed colts that don't belong.
"There are some cases where you plan [schedules] a couple months in advance and it doesn't work,'' he said. "There's other ones that do work out. Then there's other cases where you've got to play it as it comes and see when the horses are telling you they're ready to do something.''
With great success comes even greater expectations, and if Pletcher goes 0-for-4 Saturday, he'll hear the same old questions.
"Winning the Derby is a challenge for me and for everyone, and I can honestly say it's a race I would love to win every year, but it doesn't encompass our whole year,'' he said. "I'm grateful I did it once and I'd love to win it again, but on May 3 I'll wake up either way and keep doing what we do the rest of the year.''
Notes & quotes: California-based Stellar Wind (post 12) is the 7-2 morning-line favorite for Friday's 11/8-mile, $1-million Kentucky Oaks for 3-year-old fillies. Condo Commando and I'm a Chatterbox are the 4-1 co-second choices in a field of 14. NBC Sports Network will televise the Oaks live, with post time set for 5:49 p.m.