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Top trainer Todd Pletcher could have six Derby entrants

Trainer Todd Pletcher, left, and owner Mike Repole

Trainer Todd Pletcher, left, and owner Mike Repole talk at a news conference at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. (Nov. 1, 2011) Credit: AP

In thoroughbred racing's 350-year history, few have achieved so much as quickly as Todd Pletcher. Going through his lists of champions, stakes victories, Eclipse Awards and earnings records can cause eye strain. He's the relentless CEO of an equine version of the Roman army, with endlessly regenerating resources to conquer all competition.

"Todd is the greatest trainer in the world,'' said one of his owners, Mike Repole. "When he has a horse running against me, I don't like it.''

Repole has lots of company. No American horseman in this century has collected as many trophies as Pletcher, who's only 45. Yet until three years ago, he was dogged for not having the solid-gold bauble everybody wants most, the one they hand out at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

Oddly, Pletcher's Kentucky Derby breakthrough in 2010 came with Super Saver, a workmanlike colt who never won again. That finally ended the annual grilling but not the hunger for an encore. If all goes well, Pletcher will enter a record-tying five horses -- Verrazano, Revolutionary, Overanalyze, Palace Malice and Charming Kitten -- Wednesday for Saturday's 139th Run for the Roses. He's even considering a sixth, Winning Cause.

In 2007, Pletcher saddled five and couldn't do better than sixth. Two years before, Nick Zito went 0-for-5, with his best finish seventh. "We all know that just having five doesn't mean you're going to win,'' Pletcher said.

His 1-for-31 Derby record is misleading because only twice in 12 years (he sat out in 2003) did Pletcher enter only one.

"Some people seem to think that I've been training for 50 years or something,'' he said, "when in reality I got my license in 1996 and we ran our first [four] horses in the Derby in 2000. Because of the number of horses we've successfully gotten to the race, it distorts the figures. The best we could have done is to win 12.''

Many of Pletcher's also-rans were precocious sprint types with little chance of staying 11/4 miles, and the undefeated Verrazano would be his first betting favorite. Revolutionary and Overanalyze also are legitimate contenders, while Palace Malice, Charming Kitten and Winning Cause seem overmatched.

When questioned whether his approach to the Derby might be flawed, Pletcher said: "I don't know that my training method is wrong for this race. We've won and had some quality seconds and thirds, and we had some horses who ran absolutely terrible.''

Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, 77, goes way back with Pletcher. In the late 1960s, he and J.J. Pletcher, Todd's 75-year-old father, met while training quarter horses in the Southwest.

"Wayne knew Todd when he was 2 years old,'' J.J. said. Twenty years later, Todd became one of Lukas' assistants, serving from 1989-95. Pletcher modeled his multitrack operation after Lukas' world-class regime, right down to the typeface of the initials on their saddlecloths and barns.

In 1996, Lukas was the first with five in the Derby gate, earning his third of four wins with Grindstone. He plans to enter long shots Oxbow and Will Take Charge, which would extend his entries record to 47. Recently, he marveled at the cavalry troop Pletcher has assembled.

"My adopted son over there, he's gathering them up,'' Lukas said, smiling. "I'm glad there's only one more prep or he'd have seven or eight, I think.''

Yet quantity guarantees little in this chaotic rodeo, except that at least four losers will return to Pletcher's barn before sundown Saturday.

"We're blessed and in a great position,'' Pletcher said. "I have a tremendous appreciation for how difficult the Kentucky Derby is to win. Even if you have the best horse, that doesn't mean you're going to succeed. You have to have everything go right during the race and get lucky with the weather and the track condition. But that being said, we absolutely couldn't be happier with the cards we're holding."

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