05/02/2013 1:12PM

Kentucky Derby: Trainer Plesa gets second shot with Itsmyluckyday

Barbara D. Livingston
Eddie Plesa Jr. is extremely pleased with how Itsmyluckyday is coming into Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. Fourteen years ago, his only other Derby starter, the filly Three Ring, finished last after a poor start in the classic.

The field was less than an eighth of a mile into the race when trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. knew his first Kentucky Derby experience was not going to be a memorable one.

Three Ring, one of two fillies in the 19-horse field for the 1999 Kentucky Derby, had ducked in at the break under jockey John Velazquez, bumping with Adonis, who was to her inside. A filly who preferred to be forwardly placed, Three Ring was now in midpack. She would finish last.

“If you could have stopped the race and plucked her out of there, you would have,” Plesa recalled in a recent interview. “She didn’t break as well as maybe we would have wanted her to, she was inside, and she got [slammed], and Johnny did what he was supposed to do – he stood up on her as hard as he could, and the saddle slipped. Nobody’s fault. Comes under the heading ‘One way to win and 1,000 ways to lose.’

“It was what it was . . . wasted time, wasted effort, wasted money,” Plesa added. “Up until the time they came out of the gate, it was a great experience.”

It has taken 14 years, but Plesa is back in the Kentucky Derby, this time with the colt Itsmyluckyday. A son of Lawyer Ron, Itsmyluckyday was all the rage after upsetting the previously undefeated Violence in the Grade 3 Holy Bull at Gulfstream in January. His bandwagon emptied out some when Orb ran by him in the final furlong of the Florida Derby, with Itsmyluckyday finishing second, beaten 2 3/4 lengths.

For Plesa, though, second in the Florida Derby was just fine. It earned the colt enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby, and it took the focus away from the low-key Plesa and his colt.

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

“Were we disappointed? Absolutely. You’d have to be disappointed,” Plesa said two days after the Florida Derby while sitting in his Calder office. “I’m not oblivious to everything that’s been said about the horse and all the hoopla about him. But in all honesty, this is going to take [pressure] off of us for a while and let other people deal with it. Not that I mind dealing with it, but it puts a target on your back.”

Laurie Plesa, Eddie’s wife of 33 years and part-owner of Itsmyluckyday, said the loss was almost a sense of relief.

“I never felt the pressure that I felt going into the Florida Derby,” she said. “It didn’t stop.”

Itsmyluckyday came to Louisville last weekend a bit under the radar. And that’s just fine with Eddie Plesa, who doesn’t covet the spotlight.

“Some people aspire to be at the top of the class,” Plesa said. “Some people aspire to hit the highest note. They want to go to New York because that’s the premier racing, supposedly. Me? I’m happy doing what I’m doing.”

What Plesa has been doing for the last 30-plus years is training horses and winning races on a regular basis in southern Florida and New Jersey. On April 6, 2012, Plesa won his 2,000th career race.

Plesa, 64, is the son of the jockey/trainer Eddie Plesa Sr., who had his family on the move throughout Plesa Jr.’s youth. But when Calder opened in 1971, Florida became home.

“Every summer, wherever my father was riding, I’d go to work for somebody he was riding for,” Plesa said. “I pretty much have done it all – walked horses, groomed horses, ponied horses, galloped horses.”

Plesa worked in the racing office at Calder and Hialeah. He met Laurie while working at Calder. Laurie is the sister of John and Jason Servis, both trainers. John Servis won the 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Smarty Jones.

Plesa’s father hooked up with the owner Fred Hooper, and in 1983, the younger Plesa began training for Hooper. Among the first horses he was given was Copelan, a multiple Grade 1-winning 2-year-old for trainer Mitchell Griffin who could only manage a couple of thirds with Plesa during the latter part of his 3-year-old season.

Plesa also had the 2-year-old Shuttle Jet, who beat Swale when the two debuted at Belmont. Shuttle Jet finished second to Swale in the Saratoga Special and Belmont Futurity. Swale would win the 1984 Kentucky Derby and Belmont.

While training for Hooper, Plesa spent a couple of years in New York but quickly found that it wasn’t for him.

“I’ve always said to enjoy New York, you have to be from New York,” Plesa said. “If you’re not from New York, it takes some getting used to. It wasn’t my cup of tea.”

Back in Florida, he developed longtime clients Bea Oxenberg as well as David Melin and Marion Montanari, who began Trilogy Stable with trainer Stanley Hough. Melin and Montanari own two-thirds of Itsmyluckyday.

But it was Barry Schwartz who gave Plesa Three Ring, who bounced back from her Derby debacle to win the Grade 1 Acorn at Belmont, to date Plesa’s only Grade 1 win.

She was the favorite for the Mother Goose that summer when tragedy struck in the paddock at Belmont. While being fitted with blinkers in the saddling stall, Three Ring reared up, fell backward and fractured her skull. She had to be euthanized.

Plesa said he likened it to losing a member of the family.

“It sounds funny, it sounds foolish, it’s just a horse, but it’s not just a horse,” Plesa said. “And it wasn’t that she was a money-making machine, it wasn’t because my first-round draft choice, my all-pro quarterback, just broke his leg and will never play again. There was a bond there.

“That was the first time that my wife was really around a horse, and wherever we were, whether it was Kentucky or New York, we’d go out there almost every single night just to check in on her, and she’d lay in her stall, and she’d put her head in your lap if you wanted her too . . . She had a personality. It was tough on all of us.”

Shortly after that incident, officials from the New York Racing Association offered Plesa a managerial job. Plesa gave it some thought before rejecting the offer.

“I thought, ‘What am I going to do? How much did this take out of me?’ ” Plesa said. “I listened, and I thought about it, and I said no.”
Laurie Plesa said her husband liked being around horses too much to take a corporate job.

Eddie Plesa went back to work and developed some nice horses, such as stakes winners Best of the Rest, Gottcha Gold, Electrify, and Wander Mom.

When Gottcha Gold won the Salvator Mile at Monmouth in 2007, he beat Lawyer Ron, who would come back to win the Whitney and Woodward at Saratoga. Plesa kept that in mind when it came time to buy Itsmyluckyday, a son of Lawyer Ron. He bought him for $110,000 at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co. March selected sale of 2-year-olds in training.

Itsmyluckyday won three of his first five starts before running sixth in the Delta Jackpot, run around the tight turns at Delta Downs, and fourth in the Dania Beach on turf. He had his breakthrough race in the Gulfstream Park Derby on New Year’s Day – the same day potential Kentucky Derby favorite Verrazano won his debut – before upsetting Violence in the Holy Bull.

Itsmyluckyday was the 8-5 favorite in the Florida Derby and had the lead at the eighth pole before giving way to Orb.

“The object wasn’t to win the Florida Derby,” Plesa said. “The object was to be our best for the Kentucky Derby.”

Plesa said Itsmyluckyday wasn’t fit enough to win the Florida Derby if somebody else came with his best race. Orb did.

Following a solid one-mile work in 1:43.20 by Itsmyluckyday on April 18 at Calder, Plesa believes his horse is fit enough to win the Kentucky Derby.

“There’s nothing I would change – absolutely nothing,” Plesa said. “Everything was set up for this Saturday. Last time, he had a legitimate excuse. He won’t have that excuse Saturday.”

While Plesa and his wife seem to be at ease with everything heading into the Kentucky Derby, the 86-year-old Melin is a bundle of nerves, in part because of the confidence of his trainer.

“He’s very upbeat,” Melin said. “I always thought he was a very conservative guy, but he’s really upbeat on this horse.”