05/02/2007 11:00PM

Primary target in sight for one of the greats

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It was just after 7:30 on the night of April 7, almost 90 minutes after the last race had been run at Aqueduct, and trainer Todd Pletcher was glued to a television set in the track's film theater.

He snapped his fingers vigorously and watched excitedly as Ramon Dominguez guided Icy Atlantic through horses in the Santa Anita Park stretch to get up late and win the Grade 2 Arcadia Handicap.

It was Pletcher's sixth win of the day - he ran 19 horses at six tracks around the country - and fourth in a graded stakes. A career day for most trainers, a typical one for Pletcher. One week earlier, Pletcher won eight races - including five graded stakes - from 15 starters. Still, the first thought that crept into Pletcher's mind that April night at Aqueduct was of the one that got away.

"We just missed with Octave," Pletcher said, referring to Octave's head loss to Christmas Kid in the Grade 1 Ashland at Keeneland.

The real one that has gotten away from Pletcher in his brief 10-year training career is the Kentucky Derby. Beginning in 2000, when he sent out four horses, Pletcher has participated in six Derbies, saddling 14 starters. His best results were runner-up finishes by Invisible Ink in 2001 and Bluegrass Cat last year.

On Saturday, Pletcher will saddle five horses in the 133rd Kentucky Derby, tying a record set by Pletcher's former boss, D. Wayne Lukas, in 1996 and equaled by Nick Zito in 2005.

"I guess I'm not as excited about having five - I want to have one that wins," Pletcher said. "That's more important to me."

Pletcher, 39, defends his futility in past Derbies by saying he has not brought the best horse to the race. He has never run a favorite. The shortest odds on any individual betting interest Pletcher saddled was Bandini, who went off at 6-1 in 2005. Bandini finished 19th of 20 and came out of the race with an injury. Nine of Pletcher's Derby starters were higher than 20-1 odds.

Pletcher believes the horses he is bringing to this year's Derby give him the best chances he has had to win America's most prestigious horse race. Scat Daddy has won the Champagne, Fountain of Youth, and Florida Derby; Circular Quay took the Hopeful and Louisiana Derby; Cowtown Cat won the Gotham and Illinois Derby; Any Given Saturday won the Sam F. Davis and fell a nose short to defending 2-year-old champion Street Sense in the Tampa Bay Derby; Sam P., his so-called outsider, finished third in the Santa Anita Derby.

In the case of Circular Quay, Pletcher is bucking Derby tradition by racing him off an eight-week layoff. Circular Quay is a light-framed horse who Pletcher believes needed more time to recover from the Louisiana Derby. Pletcher has won many races bringing horses back from extended layoffs and is showing confidence in his own abilities by electing to make this unorthodox move.

"For me, the horses that we train tend to do much better with time between races," Pletcher said. "I just don't see why that wouldn't apply to the Kentucky Derby. I know that you can take all the historical facts and stats and all that, but if I do that, I'm ignoring the most important data and that's the ones that I train."

Selling the extended layoff to Circular Quay's owner, Michael Tabor, was not hard. Tabor, a longtime supporter of Pletcher's, is used to his European trainers giving horses eight to 12 weeks between races.

"Todd's the trainer," said Demi O'Byrne, the racing manager for Tabor. "We're happy to go along with whatever he wants to do. In Europe, we do that all the time with Aidan O'Brien and Michael Stoute. That's something that would never bother us."

Neither O'Byrne nor Tabor nor any of Pletcher's other clients are bothered by how big an operation Pletcher has developed. Since going out on his own in 1996, Pletcher's stable has grown from seven horses to more than 200. He already ranks as the fifth-leading trainer of all time in purse money won ($121,813,028 through Wednesday).

"He has the capacity for that," said O'Byrne. "He learned his trade from the best in the world," a reference to Lukas. "Everything is always on the tip of his tongue. When you talk with him, he doesn't need notes."

Jim Scatuorchio, who owns Scat Daddy in partnership with Tabor, has been with Pletcher for nine years. Scatuorchio marvels at the job Pletcher does managing his stable of horses and owners.

"I need as much attention as anybody else," Scatuorchio said. "After I give my two cents, I realized this guy is extremely competent and is two steps ahead of everything I ever thought of. The way he carries himself is tremendous, it's remarkable. I couldn't do it. I'd be screaming through all the tension. When things go wrong - and things do go wrong - you'd never know it from his demeanor."

When Jack Wolf, owner of Sam P., was looking for a new trainer in 2002, his racing manager, Barry Berkelheimer, suggested he not to go to Pletcher because of the large number of horses Pletcher had. But Scatuorchio assured Wolf that was a non-issue.

With Pletcher, Wolf campaigned multiple champion Ashado and a bevy of graded winners including Purge, Keyed Entry, and Harlan's Holiday.

"You sit down with Todd, he's everything you want in a trainer," said Wolf, who along with his wife, Laurie, races under the name Starlight Stable. "What I look for is somebody that's a good horseman, somebody that's honest, somebody who will communicate to you on an as-needed basis, and he's got all that. Anybody that's hesitating to send him horses because of the number of horses he's got, they're making a mistake. He's got this thing down like he's got a five-horse business."

When Elliott Walden left training to become racing manager for WinStar Farm, he suggested using Pletcher. However, Walden said he is careful to make sure WinStar sends him horses "that fit into his first string." WinStar gave Pletcher only three horses, two of which - Cowtown Cat and Any Given Saturday - are in the Derby.

Walden said that Pletcher's status as the three-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer has not kept him from being receptive to his owners.

"Todd is very, very good about receiving input without getting defensive," Walden said. "Here's a guy who's won an Eclipse Award three years in a row, he doesn't need to take a back seat to anybody. In making decisions when you have a thought or have an idea, he's very quick to listen and not just say 'I'm the man, I don't need to listen to anybody.' "

Walden believes Pletcher can go down as the greatest trainer of all time. But, he said, Pletcher needs to win a classic race to complete his resume. Pletcher concurs.

"There's no question about it, you can win a lot of races, you can win a lot of purse money, you can win a lot of Grade 1 races," Pletcher said. "To the people outside the racing world, there's one race in particular that stands out. Until we win one of those, I would say it'd be hard to be ranked up there with those that have."

Despite missing the first six weeks of the year due to a medication suspension, Pletcher has already won 32 stakes in 2007, putting him on pace to surpass the 100 he won a year ago. Pletcher will have runners in 10 stakes between Friday and Saturday at Churchill alone. But, he said, this weekend is all about the Derby.

"It'd be nice to win a couple of stakes," he said, "but your success is going to be dependent on whether or not you win the Derby."