04/30/2013 3:15PM

Andrew Beyer: Why does Midas touch desert Pletcher on Kentucky Derby Day?

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Barbara D. Livingston
Given Todd Pletcher's 1-for-31 record in the Kentucky Derby, bettors are understandably skeptical about backing Verrazano, shown exercising on Tuesday morning, at a short price.

With the strongest racing stable in America, Todd Pletcher comes into the Kentucky Derby in a position of extraordinary strength. He will saddle 25 percent of the field: Verrazano, the undefeated colt who is the probable favorite; Revolutionary, the formidable stretch-runner who won the Louisiana Derby; Overanalyze, runaway winner of the Arkansas Derby; and two others.

Yet there is a reason to question the chances of the Pletcher contingent. The trainer’s previous runners in the Derby have compiled a collective 1-for-31 record, with two seconds and one third. Many have performed dismally; six times since 2000 a Pletcher horse has finished last or next-to-last.

It’s a mystifying record. Is it an aberration, or a sign that there is some flaw in Pletcher’s approach to the Derby?

[2013 KENTUCKY DERBY: Get PPs, contender profiles, live updates]

Pletcher said, “People seem to think that I’ve been training for 50 years. But my first Derby starter was in 2000 and the best I could have done is to win 12 races.”

He is correct that this is not necessarily a meaningful sample. His former boss, Wayne Lukas, used to be derided for his failures in the Derby but eventually wound up with four victories to his credit.

Pletcher’s barn is restocked every year with blue-chip prospects. He dominates the 2-year-old races at Saratoga (where the nation’s best youngsters traditionally debut) and he dominates 3-year-old maiden races at Gulfstream with his late-bloomers. Pletcher moves his colts around the country like pieces on a chessboard and dominates the prep races leading up to the Derby. Yet by the first Saturday in May, the Pletcher 3-year-olds often don’t look so formidable. Remarkably, the trainer has never saddled a Derby favorite before this year, and more than half of his starters have been 20-1 or more.

Part of the explanation for the attrition of his forces is sheer bad luck. Pletcher’s undefeated colt Algorithms was a brilliant prospect in 2012 before a leg fracture ended his career. Uncle Mo was the best 3-year-old of his generation in 2011, but a liver ailment knocked him out of the Triple Crown. Eskendereya would have been the standout favorite in the 2010 Derby, but he suffered a career-ending leg injury less than two weeks before the race. If these horses had stayed healthy, the racing world might be hailing Pletcher for his mastery of the Derby.

Nevertheless, the Pletcher horses who do run in the Derby rarely rise to the occasion and deliver a peak performance. (Super Saver, his lone Derby success, might be counted as an exception, but Super Saver in 2010 was one of the luckiest Derby winners ever, benefiting from a perfect ground-saving trip while runner-up Ice Box – who deserved to win – encountered insuperable trouble.)

I asked Pletcher if it was possible that his customary training regimen was somehow ill-suited to the Derby. “I don’t think our training methods are wrong,” he said. “Hopefully we’ve learned some things over the years and have included some things that we can do differently. It doesn’t guarantee that we can win this year because we [have five starters], but I think it shows that at least our methods of getting to this point are pretty effective.”

But getting to the Derby is not the same as winning the Derby, and the form of Pletcher horses often seem to be on a decline by the date of the main event.

I can offer one possible theory to explain Pletcher’s poor record in the Derby and the rest of the Triple Crown series. (He is 0 for 7 in the Preakness and 1 for 11 in the Belmont Stakes.) His training philosophy emphasizes the importance of spacing horses’ races, giving the animals plenty of time to recover from a hard effort. His runners are at their best after a rest. Pletcher horses laid off for more than 90 days have compiled an exceptional record in graded stakes, winning 30 percent of the time over the last five years.  By contrast, his horses coming back after a month or less win graded stakes at an 18 percent rate.

Pletcher can usually manage horses’ schedules so that they get the optimal amount of time between races. But he doesn’t have that luxury with his 3-year-old Derby prospects because they must go through a demanding series of prep races to be fit on the first Saturday in May. (Perhaps it is significant that Pletcher’s 2007 Belmont Stakes winner, Rags to Riches, was a filly who, because of her gender, had not been subjected to the prep-race grind.)

To prepare for the 139th Derby, Verrazano has had a tough schedule that is atypical for a Pletcher runner. He made his career debut on Jan. 1, and subsequently raced on Feb. 2, March 9, and April 6. After dominating his rivals in his first three starts, he had to work hard to win his most recent start, the Wood Memorial Stakes, by less than a length, despite an easy trip. The trajectory of his form resembles that of Gemologist last year, who won all of his races but was hard-pressed to win a slow Wood Memorial and then finished 16th in the Derby.

Pletcher is such a skillful trainer, and he has so many good horses, that he is bound to start winning Derbies as Lukas did.  His 1-for-31 start will look like a statistical oddity, and theories to explain his lack of success will be disproved. But until he definitively turns the tide, handicappers should look warily upon the Pletcher 3-year-olds, even the potential stars like Verrazano.

© 2013, The Washington Post

richardc More than 1 year ago
Big thing to being a trainer is picking the proper race for the horse to run in (Las Berrara)
Infinity More than 1 year ago
Verrazano has already run fast and has GC on the bottom. Comparison to Gemoligist is poor. GOOD LOOKING COLT ALSO. Bro--Beyers don' t lie, people do......
Thomas s More than 1 year ago
Looks like McGaughy is "saddling the derby favorite" this year. Watch the closers, Which one will survive the crowd? Conditions? Vyjack is 2-0 on the slop....oops, he's got the 20. Will Verrazano go with Falling Sky out of the gate? Will that use him up? Orb will have to run through a crowd...not pretty. Castellano passed on Revolutionary in favor of Normandy Invasion. Borel for Revolutionary ..10/1 this morning? That was a weird decision. Three top horses, three top jocks...JR, Joel & Javier. Long race with 126 pounds in conditions...no dominant horse yet..they are all imminently beatable. I say a closer survives and is running fast at the end. I say the front end falls apart mid stretch. Chalk "looks" like he should be running at the end except the number of horses he has to pass will be daunting...no "Street Sense trip" this year. Great race and a great betting race.....tix will be big. Best to all.
John LaRosa More than 1 year ago
The premise of this article is that it is good handicapping on Derby Day to toss out a horse with a trainer who has a poor record in the Derby. Indeed, Pletcher has won only one Derby since first sending a horse there in 2000. So my takeaway is you should toss every Pletcher horse - unless it fits the profile of his Derby winner: 1) owned by WinStar, 2) ridden by Borel, 3) post position near the rail, 4) on a sloppy track, 5) good finish in its prior prep. race . . .
John LaRosa More than 1 year ago
The premise of this article is that it is good handicapping on the Derby to toss out a horse with a trainer who has a poor record in the Derby. Indeed, Pletcher has won only one Derby since first sending a horse in 2000. So my takeaway is you should toss every Pletcher horse unless it fits the profile of his Derby winner: 1) owned by WinStar, 2) ridden by Borel, 3) post position near the rail, 4) on a sloppy track, 5) good finish in its prior prep. race . . .
JeanK More than 1 year ago
Maybe it is because Pletcher's main focus is to get his horses to the derby; getting 5 in the starting gate is no easy feat. However, in his obsession to get to the Derby he squeezes all the juices out of his horses. Come derby day not much left in the tank.
Arnold Maurer More than 1 year ago
In my humble opinion the KD is usually won on the far turn. The horse that has something left in the tank plus the f,t. move is bingo.
Greg Rouch More than 1 year ago
I notice that every year nineteen out of twenty horses lose the Derby. If you think about it, losing the Derby has become easier and easier. Thirty, forty or fifty years ago, when Derby fields were much smaller, it was actually harder for a trainer to LOSE the Derby. Imagine rolling dice that went up to twenty, instead of just twelve. How often do you think you would roll twenty?
Thomas s More than 1 year ago
Excellent point.Fields are much larger reducing the statistical probability...I guess Todd has that figured out with the 5 entries.
Matt Zebriski More than 1 year ago
As always, Pletcher's failings are due to bad luck, or some other mystical force that he is not responsible for...Beyer points out that Pletcher is an exceptional trainer when bringing horses back from appropriate rests...duh! What trainer wouldn't be successful when bringing those athletes, with those pedigrees back from appropriate rest? Maybe Pletcher is a butcher, just like Lukas...a trainer who just happens to push his horses to the brink in an effort to gain fame a glory for himself (primary) and his owners (secondary), with little regard or care for the horse...its a numbers game, take the best horses on the planet, put them through the meat grinder, and the ones that emerge are iron horses (usually 3-5 of his 100+ 2yos)...the others? Well, we don't hear about their retirements, breakdowns, abandonments, and the millions and millions of dollars wasted on horse flesh without any consequence to Mr. Pletcher (whose reputation just seems to grow to ridiculous proportions). Pletcher's horses usually fail at the KD because they breakdown, not because they run out of luck. So what is Pletcher's answer...? Just keep sending bigger contingents to the race. With 20% of the field (it would have undoubtedly been 30-40% had he not broken down several others), he now has a legitimate shot to hit the board... As I have said before, 200+ horses per year, no legitimately good older horses save a handful, that were developed from the start. Great promoter, bad trainer.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I think time will prove him one of the very best trainers ever. Interested in his horses well being at all times. Jbeau
Shibbley More than 1 year ago
Pletcher has better stock than most every trainer in the country, so on an avg race day (thursday at Toga), chances are his horse is better than yours (purely numbers). He is going to win a lot of races taking his choice of his stock against your choice of your stock. However, in the KD. he faces all the best trainers who bring there BEST 3 year olds. It's not really his stock vs your stock, it's his best vs your best. That is a different animal. Eventually he will win what is considered his share of the KD.