LOUISVILLE, Ky. — He holds the all-time record for purse earnings, $336 million plus, and when he’s eligible in four years, Todd Pletcher will be a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer. Among his 4,300 victories are more than 1,000 stakes, including a Kentucky Derby and two Belmonts, and he owns seven Eclipse Awards for leading trainer.
To identify him, you don’t even have to use his last name. Like LeBron, Todd is enough.
Yet despite this encyclopedic list of achievements, all you hear about this week is Pletcher’s 1-for-45 record in 16 Derbys. On Saturday, for the 15th time, he’ll saddle multiple horses — his standout, Always Dreaming, co-owned by Manhasset residents Anthony and MaryEllen Bonomo, plus longshots Tapwrit and Patch. If all three run, Pletcher will equal his mentor, D. Wayne Lukas, for most Derby runners.
Pletcher never has had the betting favorite, so it’s not as if he’s a perennial upset victim. Oddly, his skill at getting so many horses to the Derby magnifies the criticism. Even after you win all the time, you can’t win.
The Pletcher Protocol for his legion of well-bred, expensive 2-year-olds is to win first time out, then repeat in a sprint stakes. If they can handle longer distances in the fall, they’re candidates for the Triple Crown trail.
“The one thing we do try to accomplish throughout the year is place our horses in races where they can do well,’’ Pletcher said. “I think that’s been one of our strengths over the years.”
No one comes close to matching it. Since his Derby debut in 2000, he’s been in all but one (2003). Super Saver got him off the schneid in 2010, but Pletcher’s only other in-the-money finishers were Impeachment (third, 2000), Invisible Ink (second, 2001), Bluegrass Cat (second, 2006), Revolutionary (third, 2013) and Danza (third, 2014).
Most of his Derby flops were precocious sprinter/miler types unsuited for 1 1/4 miles.
“We’ve probably run horses that didn’t deserve to be there, but they qualified on earnings or points,” Pletcher said. “I wouldn’t necessarily characterize it as Derby fever. We’ve had some owners who decided, ‘Well, let’s take a shot.’”
Derby fever is an incurable ailment that can make multimillionaires delusional about overmatched horses. They want to see their silks in the world’s most famous race, and so does Pletcher.
“We’ve always taken the approach that this race is the reason why a lot of people are in the business,” he said. “The last thing I want to do is to deny the opportunity to someone with a healthy horse. Having a potential starter in the Derby means a lot to the owners.
“Part of the excitement for us is to see the excitement and enjoyment the owners get. It’s a very, very exciting time. And we want to win.”
Always Dreaming’s 5-length Florida Derby romp will make him one of the top three choices at Wednesday’s post-position draw. He’s training well at Churchill Downs, going 5 furlongs Friday in 59.60 seconds, with a final quarter-mile in a snappy 23.80. “I thought it was a powerful work, exceptional,” Pletcher said. “He’s full of himself.”
Maybe a bit too full of himself, because Monday morning Pletcher switched to a stronger exercise rider, Nick Bush, and longer reins to provide more control. The colt still pulled during his gallop, but Bush said, “He came back to me some as we went along. He was better with it.”
Bush said that on Tuesday the colt was much calmer and “didn’t fight me at all,” and Pletcher “very much liked” what he saw.
Always Dreaming is gifted, but none of Pletcher’s 23 last-out prep winners finished first or second in the Derby. (Super Saver was second in the Arkansas Derby.)
“We’re very pleased with how Always Dreaming has progressed all winter and spring,” Pletcher said. “His energy level is off the charts. The trick for us is to keep him focused.”
Notes & quotes: California-based Paradise Woods (post 4 of 14) was made the 5-2 morning-line favorite for Friday’s fillies Derby, the Grade I Kentucky Oaks.