04/24/2013 5:58PM

Kentucky Derby travel plans change with the times

Tom Keyser
Itsmyluckyday has kept training at Calder, where the surface "will prepare you for any other racing surface," in the opinion of trainer Eddie Plesa Jr.

Last year, in an attempt to avoid the often-volatile weather in Kentucky in the spring, trainer Todd Pletcher decided to remain at Palm Meadows with his Kentucky Derby runners until the week of the race, and watched it rain, rain, rain in south Florida.So this year, after running his horses in preps in New York, Kentucky, Florida, Arkansas, and Louisiana, Pletcher consolidated his Derby runners at Churchill Downs, where on Wednesday it rained, rained, rained.

Meanwhile, trainer Eddie Plesa has kept Itsmyluckyday at Calder in south Florida, where the weather has been consistently good, and Doug O'Neill, who trains Goldencents, has followed the same pattern he did a year ago with I'll Have Another, remaining in California to do his serious training and not shipping in until one week before the Derby.

"First of all, I get to stay home. That's a big plus," Plesa, on a national teleconference earlier this week, said of his reasons for not heading to Louisville this weekend. "Second of all, Calder's racing surface, I think, will prepare you for any other racing surface, so I think that's a plus. The third thing is we do not have to deal with weather conditions that may be happening or may arise in Kentucky. So I just think, for our horse, it's the right thing to do."

[DERBY WATCH: Top 20 contenders and video | Who's hot, who's not]

For years, trainers seemed wanting to get to Churchill Downs as quickly as possible after a final prep race, believing familiarization with the surface, and the surroundings, were important for Derby preparedness. But that has changed in recent years. In addition to I'll Have Another's relatively late arrival last year, Derby winner Giacomo (2005) did not get to Churchill Downs until the week of the race after having his final drill at Hollywood Park six days before the Derby, and in 2003, Funny Cide arrived three days before the Derby after having his final work at Belmont Park four days before the race.

Yet Animal Kingdom (2011), Super Saver (2010) - trained by Pletcher - Mine That Bird (2009), Big Brown (2008), Barbaro (2006), and Smarty Jones (2004) all arrived in Louisville in time to have their final workout at Churchill Downs, and Street Sense (2007) trained there for weeks, his residence interrupted only by a quick trip to Keeneland for a final prep race in the Blue Grass Stakes.

One of the reasons an early arrival at Churchill Downs has been deemed less essential by trainers is the widely held belief that the surface changes greatly in the fortnight preceding the Derby, especially after the meet opens one week before the race, so the track you train on does not necessarily resemble the track you race on.

Pletcher, in particular, was critical of Churchill's track following the Breeders' Cup in fall 2011, which contributed to his camping out in Florida in spring 2012.

"I think there was some sort of surface change, perhaps during the summer in between the spring and the fall meet - probably some additional clay," Pletcher said. "The Churchill surface is normally a surface that dries out very quickly after a rain, and that particular case, it essentially did not dry out throughout the week. I would describe it at that time as a peanut buttery-type surface that was sticky and demanding, and it seemed like a lot of horses that were speed-oriented types didn't do particularly well."

Pletcher said the main reason he decided to come to Churchill Downs earlier this year was not because of last year's experience, but more out of logistics.

"We just sort of had horses prepping in so many different places and felt like that this would be the easiest place to consolidate rather than moving everyone back to Florida after the Blue Grass, and the Wood Memorial, and the Louisiana Derby," he said.

While the weather was dreary Wednesday, the forecast, according to the Weather Channel, was for improved conditions Thursday and Friday, but there was a chance for more rain over the weekend, 30 percent on Saturday, 20 percent on Sunday, the day Pletcher is planning on giving Overanalyze, Palace Malice, Revolutionary, and Verrazano their final works.

So far, though, the track surface has been "in excellent condition," Pletcher said.

"It seems like the horses that we've been training over it and breezing over it have been getting over it very well," he said. "Sometimes the track will change when the race meet starts, and I think we'll see how that develops once the races start here on Saturday, but so far I've been happy with it."

Ian GW More than 1 year ago
I say add the clay. If your a speed horse and the track is favoring speed, than that's not fair to the late runners. At least if they even it out and add clay its a stamina test, whether you have speed or not. Its fairer and no speed bias.
Tom Hua More than 1 year ago
One of Todd Pletcher's horses will win the Kentucky Derby this year. I don't know which one among his runners. It is just my feeling. Again? Why not? He is hot.
Ian GW More than 1 year ago
Lol. He has 20% of the field. I'd say he has a shot.
Ray Sousa More than 1 year ago
read between the lines pletcher wants a paved highway for his distance limited Verrazano.
jttf More than 1 year ago
i noticed back in the 1990s when horses worked out at pimlico before the preakness. they had very low winning percentages. lately, trainers have picked up on this and rarely work at pimlico before the preakness. working 2 or more times at churchill before the kentucky derby is a very bad idea, unless it is your home course. since 2003, 76 derby starters have worked 2 or more times before the derby. only one horse has won out of those 76. street sense was the one and churchill was his home. 75 derby starters with only one work before the derby have won 5 times since 2003. 40 starters without any works at churchill have won 4 times. street sense paid $12 to win. the one workout horses paid $189 for a $2 win bet. and the ship in late horses received $169. these angles work very well in other big stakes races, also. the results are not always the same.
Geral John Pinault More than 1 year ago
Pletcher's words confirm what I've been saying for weeks - Churchill is a deep, tiring track! Closers do well in The Derby. Speed horses go too fast and burn out! In 2005 High Fly won the Florida Derby in 1:49.2 and he was in front most of the way under J D Bailey. Bailey made the critical mistake of sending High Fly out in 1:09.3 for the first 6 furlongs in The Derby. He finished far back...
Bruce Epstein More than 1 year ago
Geral, it's a mile and a quarter race. There are gonna be many come from behind winners. This is not a 5,000 claimer where the speed can hold up vs lesser. Get real.
Joseph Bartelli More than 1 year ago
Take it easy Bruce. He must be new to the game.
B More than 1 year ago
I have no comment on the rest of your post, but Churchill Downs has always been a deep & tiring track that has fooled many a favorite in the past as well in more recent times. It's a very tricky racing surface. Just ask the conditioners of Easy Goer and Alydar. It took these two favorites a long time to get a hold of the track. A tad too long.
charles b More than 1 year ago
I think Affirmed had something to do with Alydar's defeat. In addition, he never changed leads throughout the 1 1/4. Easy Goer, the darling of the eastern establishment had to deal with Sunday Silence. In addition he was NOT agile. Always tended to break from the gate a bit behind his competition.
Horse Cents More than 1 year ago
You couldn't be more wrong and you've come to the wrong conclusion based on the wrong stats. Churchill actually plays fair for the most part. It is not a deep and tiring track. It is a cuppy track. Some horses can handle it and some can't grab it and don't like it. On Derby day it is less so as they groom it for as much speed as they can. In fact, if you check your statistics, more winners have come from a stalking postion than from a far back postition. Of course there have been deep closers as well as from any part of the pack. Not a deep tiring track, cuppy. I know, I've run horses on many tracks including Churchill.
iknownothing114 More than 1 year ago
Men that revolutionary he's doing gooooood, he's going to give my orb a run for his money
Geral John Pinault More than 1 year ago
THAT'S THE BET! Tri wheel w/ORB 1st and REV 2nd & 3rd w/the field...