Thoroughbreds have been racing since the 1700s, and no trainer’s purse earnings are anywhere near Todd Pletcher’s. Like the national debt, his haul of $358.7 million keeps rising relentlessly, but in a good way. Money isn’t all that counts, though, and nothing is worth more than victories on the three Saturdays when the sport becomes a mainstream happening.
Pletcher never had a better spring than last year, when he won a second Kentucky Derby with Always Dreaming and a third Belmont Stakes with Tapwrit. The 50-year-old Garden City resident is back at Churchill Downs for the 144th Derby next Saturday with Magnum Moon, Audible, Vino Rosso and Noble Indy, winners of the Arkansas Derby, Florida Derby, Wood Memorial and Louisiana Derby, respectively.
Unlike most of Pletcher’s record 46 Derby also-rans, these four are serious distance types with graded-stakes wins at 1 1⁄8 miles. Undefeated Magnum Moon can press or set the pace. Audible can stalk or come from behind. Vino Rosso overcame a nine-length deficit in the Wood. Noble Indy re-rallied in the Louisiana Derby after losing the lead and dropping back to third in midstretch.
When asked whether it’s his strongest Derby crew ever, Pletcher said, “Best since last year,” and laughed.
“It’s a remarkably consistent group. They all seem to show up every time. With the exception of Vino Rosso’s Tampa Bay Derby, I haven’t been disappointed in any of them even one time. They run hard and are adaptable to different pace scenarios. It’s nice to have a group with versatile running styles who seem to handle any surface as well.”
In any other year, the 4-for-4 Magnum Moon would be a heavy favorite and prince of the backstretch during Derby week. Santa Anita Derby champ Justify, who’s 3-for-3 for Bob Baffert, will play that role. Some have compared the flashy chestnut to American Pharoah, whom Baffert guided to the Triple Crown three years ago.
“Magnum Moon’s an impressive individual,” Pletcher said. “I can remember seeing him at my dad’s training center in December as a yearling when he was just starting to gallop. He’s one of those horses that has a tremendous presence about him and gets over the ground really well.
“All the way back then, we felt like he could turn out to be something special, and he has.”
Magnum Moon, like Justify, has done nothing wrong. The knock on both is the absence of a 2-year-old race in their past performances. Beware The Curse of Apollo, the 1882 Derby winner and the last one to make his career debut as a 3-year-old. Like many, Pletcher believes the time is coming for a horse to wear the garland of roses after not racing the year before. Baffert’s Bodemeister almost pulled it off in 2012, when I’ll Have Another caught him in deep stretch.
“I don’t think there’s any question that the Apollo curse will be broken at some point,” Pletcher said. “The trend in racing is a lot different now than however many years you want to go back, and horses don’t run as many times coming into the Derby as they used to. I think ultimately at one point talent will prevail and a horse will be able to overcome it.”
Magnum Moon was a May foal, making him among the youngest in the 2015 crop. Pletcher excels at developing precocious 2-year-olds into stakes winners, but because he thought highly of Magnum Moon, he brought him along slowly, giving him extra time to fill out and grow up. He aced his six-furlong debut Jan. 13 by 4 1⁄2 lengths at Gulfstream. On Feb. 15, the margin was two at a mile and 40 yards at Tampa Bay Downs, followed by a 3 1⁄2-length win in the 1 1⁄16-mile Rebel Stakes on March 17 at Oaklawn Park. His four-length romp April 14 in the 1 1⁄8 -mile Arkansas Derby validated him as one of the best of his generation.
“Hopefully, being two weeks late to get his first start won’t hurt his chances,’’ Pletcher said. “The Curse of Apollo has lasted for a long time, so there has to be something to it, but I think someone will reverse the curse. If it’s this year, I won’t be surprised.”
The Todd Pletcher file
Residence: Garden City
All-time leader in earnings: $358.7 million
Seven Eclipse Awards as leading trainer
Ten Eclipse champions
Kentucky Derby wins (Super Saver, 2010; Always Dreaming, 2017)
Belmont Stakes wins (Rags to Riches, 2007; Palace Malice, 2013; Tapwrit, 2017)
Nine Breeders’ Cup wins