03/20/2013 3:49PM

Sunland Derby a class reunion for Pletcher and Marr

Shigeki Kikkawa
Dry Summer was transferred to the barn of trainer Joel Marr after faltering in three straight races in Southern California.

The Grade 3, $800,000 Sunland Derby on Sunday takes place in the American Southwest, so it could be a shootout, and since the track is in New Mexico, hard by El Paso, Texas, it could be a border war. But, really, it’s nothing more than a schoolyard brawl.

You see, Joel Marr, who trains local hero Dry Summer, and Todd Pletcher, who is bringing in Abraham, went to school together nearly 40 years ago at nearby Zach White Elementary School, a little more than two miles from the track.

Who beat up whom on the playground?

“I was pretty little,” Marr said in a telephone interview earlier this week, “and I was fast, so I didn’t get beat up much.”

Zach White, located just on the other side of the border in Texas, apparently was the school of choice for children of local horsemen. Both Marr and Pletcher say they remember going to school with Mike Smith, who became a jockey, and Steve Asmussen, now training after a brief stint as a jockey, though both were a couple of years ahead of Marr and Pletcher.

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Both Marr and Pletcher are now 45 years old, and their paths have diverged since Pletcher was a Toddler. Pletcher, who long ago moved East, is now nationally known. He has won the Kentucky Derby, seven Breeders’ Cup races, has been named the Eclipse Award-winning trainer five times, and has well more than 100 of the choicest horses in his care.

Marr chose to remain near where he grew up, and he has become one of the leading trainers in the Southwest. In both 2010 and 2011, his runners earned more than $2 million, and his runners have earned more than $1 million annually every year since 2007. He has won 884 races lifetime in a training career that began in 1991. No, those aren’t Pletcher numbers, but that’s not what Marr desires.

“I never wanted to go anywhere. I’ll run at Lone Star and Turf Paradise, but I love it here in New Mexico,” Marr said. “I’ve got a farm in Tularosa that’s about 100 miles northeast of El Paso, easy distance from Ruidoso and Albuquerque, so it’s centrally located.”

Marr did achieve national attention with the mare Peppers Pride, who won all 19 of her starts in races restricted to New Mexico-breds during a career that ended in 2008.

He has approximately 30 racehorses at Sunland Park, and he has younger horses – “babies, the one’s I’m breaking” – at the nearby Frontera Training Center. Included in that bunch is a 2-year-old Distorted Humor filly who is the first foal out of Peppers Pride.

“We’re taking our time with her,” Marr said. “I’m not expecting any miracles. She got really sick when she foaled. She colicked. Right now, she’s doing well. We’ll see how it goes.”

Since then, Peppers Pride – who is at Taylor Made Farm in Kentucky – has had a colt by Distorted Humor who is now a yearling, and she recently had a colt by Malibu Moon, Marr said.

[SUNLAND DERBY: Get PPs, watch Sunday's full card live]

The Sunland Derby, at 1 1/8 miles, drew a field of nine on Wednesday. Dry Summer, to be ridden by Carlos Madeira, landed post 6, with Abraham in post 2. John Velazquez will be in to ride Abraham.

The rest of the field, from the rail out, is Just Win Baby, Stormdriver, Shakin It Up, Saint Prado, Govenor Charlie, Mudflats, and Show Some Magic.

Shakin It Up, winner of the San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita in his last start, is the 5-2 favorite on the track’s morning line. David Flores has the mount. Abraham is 4-1, and Dry Summer 5-1.

The Sunland Derby is the last of the preps worth 85 points overall, and 50 to the winner, under the new system put in place this year by Churchill Downs to determine eligibility to the May 4 Kentucky Derby. Races with 100 points to the winner begin March 30.

Both Marr and Pletcher got into racing because their fathers were trainers. Marr’s father, Gerald Marr, 75, is still active, with 24 runners at Sunland. Marr went to New Mexico State University, where he got degrees in business and animal science. After a brief flirtation with being a veterinarian, he turned to training and settled near Sunland Park, where he lives with wife, the former jockey Teresa Briggs, and daughters Shacie, 11, and Shaeden, 9.

His reputation as being a top trainer on the New Mexico circuit is one of the reasons Dry Summer came to Marr. He has had horses for Sam Britt, who co-owns Dry Summer with Michael House, for more than a decade. Dry Summer won two of his first three starts in Southern California for trainer Jeff Mullins, but then was well beaten in three straight, including the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita on Jan. 5.

“He wasn’t doing well on that surface out there, so they sent him here to see if he could get in the swing of things,” Marr said.

Since relocating to Sunland, Dry Summer won an allowance race Jan. 27, then captured the Mine That Bird Derby, the major local prep for the Sunland Derby, on Feb. 23.

Sunday’s assignment is his biggest since leaving California, though Dry Summer does have the home-field advantage.

“He’s doing well, so we’ll give it a shot,” Marr said. “I know he’ll try hard. He definitely has some talent, and he definitely likes the surface. Whether he’s good enough, we’ll find out.”

In other Derby developments:

• A field of 12 was entered Wednesday for the Grade 3, $550,000 Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park, featuring Derby Watch member Uncaptured in his 3-year-old debut. Like the Sunland Derby, the Spiral is worth 85 points overall, with 50 to the winner.