He was the hot item on Churchill Downs’ backstretch during Kentucky Derby week, and not because of anything he had done on the racetrack. Despite having run only three times and winning just once, Patch lured people to Todd Pletcher’s barn every morning. Handicappers were more interested in his stablemate Always Dreaming, who would become the Derby’s fifth consecutive winning favorite. The hearts of casual fans belonged to Patch.
Because the 3-year-old colt has only one eye.
His left one had to be removed after he came down with an incurable infection last June. The mainstream media fell hard for him, with “Good Morning America,” ESPN, NESN, USA Today and CNN doing video pieces. ESPN’s Jeannine Edwards called him “a lovable underdog,’’ and a smitten woman said, “Patch is a cutie pie.”
To Pletcher, he’s “a really cool horse to be around. Very straightforward, easy to train, a consummate professional.’’
He wasn’t surprised by all the attention Patch drew in Louisville.
“It’s an intriguing story,” Pletcher said. “My concern was how he would adapt to racing again after starting to train before he lost the eye. But he’s made a seamless transition, and nothing seems to faze him.”
Five weeks after finishing 14th in the Derby, Patch will run in Saturday’s 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes. In a grueling race often determined by pedigree, Patch’s bloodlines have the eye of the tiger. His father, Union Rags, won the 2012 Belmont, and his maternal grandfather, super sire A.P. Indy, took the 1992 “Test of the Champion.” Pletcher, a two-time Belmont winner, likes how Patch has been training.
“We’re optimistic that the distance is within his range,” Pletcher told Newsday on Monday. “His pedigree suggests that the mile-and-a-half is something he can handle.”
It’s uncertain how Patch’s eye became infected.
“No one really knows,” Pletcher said. “We came in one morning and it was swollen and running. We took him to a clinic, but it didn’t respond to treatment and the doctors couldn’t save the eye.”
Pletcher said that when Calumet Farm owner Brad Kelley learned of the ailment, but before the surgery, he decided to name him Patch. Maybe he read “Treasure Island” as a kid or had just seen “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
Pletcher sent Patch to recuperate at his father’s training center in Ocala, Florida. Two weeks later, J.J. Pletcher called and said the horse was OK. He was second in his career debut Jan. 21 at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, and won there a month later. His second-place finish next time in the Louisiana Derby earned him enough points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.
Pletcher was concerned Patch’s lack of experience would hurt him in the Derby, and drawing post 20 didn’t help. With no left eye, Patch couldn’t see his opponents leaving the gate. He never got involved in one of the most roughly run Derbys in many years, and he plodded in 14th on a sloppy track after being checked and bumped on the stretch turn.
When asked if the disability inhibits him on the track, Pletcher said, “I guess it’s impossible to know. The way he’s run in all his races, you wouldn’t know it has affected him. He’s always been very alert in the gate. For the most part, he’s handled everything really well.”
Pletcher also trained the one-eyed Pollard’s Vision, a multiple-stakes winner who ran 17th in the 2004 Derby. He was named for Seabiscuit’s jockey, Red Pollard, who was blind in one eye.
Despite Patch’s bad post and limited experience, he was hammered down from his 30-1 morning line to 14-1 on Derby Day. Love makes you do foolish things, and apparently his legion of followers bet with their hearts, not their heads. Don’t be surprised if that happens again Saturday. But considering Patch is lightly raced with room to improve, maybe this time his fans won’t have to walk the plank.