04/30/2014 6:03PM

Pletcher keeping his eye on big picture

Barbara D. Livingston
Todd Pletcher nominated 41 horses to the Triple Crown this year and is running four in the Kentucky Derby.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Expectations for Todd Pletcher are high – higher than that new video board that dominates the backstretch at Churchill Downs. Pletcher is a six-time Eclipse Award winner, trains more horses than anyone in North America and, this year, set a record for Triple Crown nominations with 41, nearly 10 percent of the 413 nominated at the early deadline in January.

When the field for this year’s Kentucky Derby was drawn on Wednesday, Pletcher had four of the 20 runners, 20 percent. Statistically, that’s twice what could have been expected, and this is only the first Triple Crown race – there are still two more to be run. As Larry David might say, That’s pretty, pretty good.

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“When you have that many nominees, if you don’t end up with one starter, or more than one starter, it’s going to be a disappointment, and there’s going to be a lot of finger pointing,” Pletcher said outside his Churchill Downs barn the other morning.

The bigger disappointment, though, is not getting results. And on that score, the ledger when it comes to the Derby is mixed.

Looked at in the most negative terms, Pletcher has won with one of his 36 Derby starters, a number mitigated by having multiple entries in numerous years. He’s had runners in the race only 13 times. This year, the best he could possibly do would be to go 1 for 4.

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But the 3-year-olds who attempt to make the Derby go through a series of important preps, and on that side of the ledger, what Pletcher has accomplished is stellar. This year, he won the Florida Derby (Constitution), Arkansas Derby (Danza), Risen Star (Intense Holiday), and Spiral Stakes (We Miss Artie). Last year, Pletcher won the Arkansas Derby, Louisiana Derby, and Wood Memorial.

“They’re looked at as Derby preps, but they’re all significant in their own right,” Pletcher said. “They’re the kinds of races that make stallions, and they’re worth a lot of prize money. They’re lucrative from all angles.”

It’s a balancing act, though.

“You’re trying to win races without peaking too soon,” Pletcher said. “But some things happen that are out of your control, like a horse firing earlier than you’d like.”

Pletcher has experienced plenty of highs and lows over the years, and while that doesn’t make losing a prospect like unbeaten Constitution any easier, Pletcher knows the road to the Derby has potholes.

“You hope those things don’t happen, but the reality is it’s the nature of the business,” Pletcher said. “Things can change from day to day. When you’re on a schedule, with a date that has a mark on it, there’s no room to adjust. If you’re dealing with a maiden and you miss a race, you adjust, there are other races. This happens when it happens.”

The four who made it this year are quite varied.

Danza was on no one’s radar before he scored an upset in the Arkansas Derby in his fourth start, and first around two turns. He’s made a positive impression here all week.

Danza was off from August to March, and ran third in a Gulfstream allowance sprint prior to his Arkansas Derby victory.

“Here’s a horse who you think has talent, you hope it happens, but Mother Nature plays a role, and you can’t force when a horse comes back from a layoff,” Pletcher said. “We got one sprint prep into him, which gave him the opportunity to have one chance to get here, and it turned out better than we could have imagined.”

Intense Holiday won the Risen Star, then was second in the Louisiana Derby. Like Danza, he has trained in impressive fashion coming into the Derby.

“The Risen Star was certainly his breakthrough race,” Pletcher said. “I didn’t think he ran quite as well in the Louisiana Derby, but the pace didn’t help him. Vicar’s in Trouble got an easier pace than we expected.

Pletcher’s other two starters are longshots. Vinceremos won the Sam Davis Stakes and was second in the Tampa Bay Derby, but most recently finished last of 14 when racing on Polytrack in the Blue Grass Stakes.

“He seemed like he was moving forward with a good progression until the Blue Grass, but things went a little upside down,” Pletcher said. “We have to hope it was the synthetic.”

By contrast, We Miss Artie earned his Derby berth by virtue of a win on Polytrack in the Spiral Stakes.

“Winning the Spiral was key to getting in,” Pletcher said. “Now he has to step up and produce over a surface on which he has yet to run like he has trained.”

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Those are the ones who made it to the Derby. Pletcher has more out there – late developers like Commissioner and Matterhorn, who could make the Belmont in five weeks.

“That’s why you have to cover your bases,” Pletcher said. “You see 41 nominations, and it’s assumed as though it’s 41 nominations to the Derby. But that’s not what we think. We think of it as 41 nominations to the Triple Crown.

“Maybe we’ll nominate a maiden who might not be ready in a few months for the Derby, but might be ready for the Belmont. You don’t just nominate thinking about the Derby. It costs $600 to nominate to the Triple Crown. If you look at it as $200 each for the Triple Crown races, that’s a minimal fee for the prestige of these three races.”