10/26/2007 12:00AM

Smaller group may be Pletcher's biggest shot

EmailOCEANPORT, N.J. - Todd Pletcher was sitting at his desk in his Churchill Downs barn office the morning after last year's Breeders' Cup World Championships when he came across a story on his computer that told of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein being sentenced to death for crimes against humanity.

"Now that guy had a bad day," Pletcher said.

Moments earlier, Pletcher had been answering questions about having gone winless with a record 17 starters in the 23rd Breeders' Cup. Pletcher put a positive spin on it, noting that he had 3 seconds and 3 thirds and his horses earned $2,160,200. Still, the fact remained that Pletcher didn't get a shiny new trophy or a new win photo for his office walls.

"I didn't really feel like we had one particular horse that could not lose," Pletcher said. "I didn't feel that way."

A year later, Pletcher admits to being disappointed but not demoralized about his winless day. Of the 17 runners - who competed in seven races - seven were sent off at odds of 5-1 or less, but only one was favored. That was Fleet Indian, who suffered a career-ending injury and was pulled up in the Distaff.

"Just because you bring a big group doesn't necessarily mean you're going to win a bunch of races," Pletcher said. "These are hard races to win."

Pletcher, 40, knows all too well. In 2004, he won two Breeders' Cup races - the Distaff with Ashado and the Sprint with Speightstown - but his overall BC record is 2 for 41. In the 24th Breeders Cup, to be held Friday and Saturday at Monmouth Park, Pletcher will have 11 starters competing in six races. Pletcher pre-entered 15 horses on Oct. 15, but four were not entered on Tuesday.

Although he may have fewer horses this year, Pletcher appears to be holding a significantly stronger hand than a year ago. In the $5 million Classic, which features Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense and Preakness winner Curlin, Pletcher has Lawyer Ron, the best older horse in training off wins in the Woodward and Whitney this summer at Saratoga, as well as Any Given Saturday, a 3-year-old who has won his last three starts, including the Haskell Invitational over this track.

"Certainly, we've never come to the Classic with this kind of chance," Pletcher said.

In the Distaff, Pletcher will send out Indian Vale, the 3-1 morning-line favorite, according to Monmouth Park linemaker Brad Thomas, as well as Unbridled Belle (9-2) and Octave (8-1), who finished second in last year's Juvenile Fillies.

In the Filly and Mare Turf, Pletcher will be well represented with Honey Ryder and Wait a While, who finished third and fourth behind Ouija Board in this race last year. English Channel, Pletcher's entrant in the Turf, is 2 for 2 over Monmouth Park's turf course, where he owns the course record for 1 3/8 miles. He is, however, taking on the European superstar Dylan Thomas.

The Leopard is listed at 8-1 in Friday's inaugural Juvenile Turf, which is a handicapping puzzle. Pletcher sends out a pair of 30-1 shots in the Mile with Host and Icy Atlantic, although the latter owns the course record here for one mile on turf and has been training extremely well in recent weeks.

"In the Distaff, I think we're holding a pretty strong hand with three fillies that have consistently been running very well," Pletcher said. "Any time you bring horses like English Channel, Honey Ryder, and Wait a While - they are very accomplished horses - we've just got to hope we get some luck on the day, have a good trip."

Pletcher said he has not done anything differently in bringing this group of horses to the Breeders' Cup. He did choose to run Any Given Saturday in the Sept. 22 Brooklyn Handicap - not a traditional BC Classic prep - primarily because he liked the timing between the Brooklyn and the Classic. He is bringing Honey Ryder up to the Filly and Mare Turf off an 11-week layoff, whereas last year she had run four weeks out.

"You have to be a little bit careful about trying to decide, 'Well, I did this with that horse, so I should do this,' " Pletcher said. "Each horse is different, and you've got to train them accordingly."

Last year, Pletcher had a successful day of preps with horses running four weeks out from the Breeders' Cup, but many of those horses did not duplicate those performances on Breeders' Cup Day.

"You're always worried when you come in off some big races and some big wins whether you've had enough time to get them back to a peak effort," Pletcher said. "We're hopeful that we do."

Earlier this year, Pletcher snapped a career 0-for-28 streak in Triple Crown races when Rags to Riches became the first filly in 102 years to win the Belmont Stakes. During the summer, Pletcher suffered through a lengthy drought at Saratoga and had his streak of trainer titles there end at five. Still, he chose to accentuate the positive, noting that the horses who were supposed to run well did run well.

"When he feels like he's done a really good job with a horse, if they run really well or if they run to expectations - he always wants to win - but I think he can live with that, I really do," said James Scatuorchio, who owns English Channel and Icy Atlantic and has had horses with Pletcher for a decade. "He doesn't get discouraged very often. If he does, it's very briefly, that's for sure."