- Bill Finley
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As the Todd Pletcher juggernaut continues its march towards this year's Kentucky Derby, get used to hearing these numbers: 0 and 24. The latter is the number of horses Pletcher has started in the Derby and the former is the number of winners he has had in America's most famous horse race.
Twenty-one of Pletcher's starters have finished off the board and five of them have finished dead last. No one has a worse record when it comes to the Kentucky Derby. Not ever. It's the one glaring hole on the record of a trainer who, otherwise, has been the sport's very best over the last 10 years.
Yet, as real as those numbers are, there's something unfair about them. To suggest that Pletcher has done a bad job when it comes to the Derby or somehow doesn't know what he's doing when handling a talented 3-year-old is nonsense. His biggest problem has been that he has run a lot of horses in the race that didn't belong.
Of Pletcher's 24 starters, 11 have gone off at odds of 30-1 or more. Six have been 40-1 or higher. Ironically, his two best showings came with two of his biggest long shots. Invisible Ink finished second in 2001 at 55-1 and Bluegrass Cat was second in 2006 at 30-1.
Perhaps Pletcher deserves some blame for running so many horses in the Derby that didn't belong, but even that might be a bit unwarranted. Just about every owner who has a horse who can get into the Derby field wants to run, and no trainer, even one of Pletcher's stature, is in any position to deny them their dream.
This time, that won't be the problem. He is heading to the Derby with an arsenal of talent unlike any a trainer has ever had. That's the good news, and the bad news. The pressure to win will be worse than ever.
Pletcher will start the favorite in Eskendereya, whose wins in the Fountain of Youth and Wood Memorial were electrifying. He's the best 3-year-old in the country, though the best 3-year-old in the country doesn't always win. Should Eskendereya stub his toe, the Pletcher stable should still be in very good shape.
He has Louisiana Derby winner Mission Impazible and Rule, who was third in the Florida Derby, gearing up for May 1. Discreetly Mine, who won the Risen Star before finishing fourth in the Louisiana Derby, is also set, but will be another one of Pletcher's 40-1 shots.
He will round out his roster of Derby starters this weekend and should add another impressive name or two to the list. He has Super Saver, the morning line favorite in the Arkansas Derby, and two strong contenders in Aikenite and Interactif, in the Blue Grass. Should his weekend go right, Pletcher could have seven starters in the Derby or 35 percent of the field.
That still wouldn't guarantee him anything. On May 2, Pletcher could be staring at a 0-for-31 record. If so, he'll do what he always does move on and start preparing for his 2011 assault on the Derby.
The only person who had anywhere near this much trouble winning the Derby was Pletcher's mentor, Wayne Lukas. Lukas started his quest to win the Kentucky Derby with a 0-for-12 record and several of his early starters were complete busts. Just when people began to doubt that he would ever get this done, he broke through with a Derby win by Winning Colors in 1988. He's now won four Kentucky Derbies.
Pletcher will win a Kentucky Derby. He will win several Kentucky Derbies. How can he not? He's just 42 years old and he is the New York Yankees of racing. Every year, he gets to deal with the most expensive and talented athletes in his sport and he doesn't figure to ever endure the ups and downs that have been a big part of Lukas's career. He's successful, corporate, unflappable, efficient and amazingly well organized, just the type of qualities that will always make him a go-to trainer for the sport's most important owners.
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Could Eskendereya win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and then not be allowed to run in the Belmont? As crazy as that may sound, it's not impossible. Embattled owner Ahmed Zayat remains under investigation by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board over loans he says he made to a pair of bookmakers. Zayat made loans to brothers Michael and Jeffrey Jelinsky who later pleaded guilty to running an illegal gambling operation out of Las Vegas.
Most states have rules on the books prohibiting owners from associating with convicted felons or bookies. Zayat has already been cleared by racing authorities in California and Kentucky, but the New York investigation is on-going.
"The inquiry is being worked on every day," said New York Racing Board spokesman Joe Mahoney. "Chairman (John) Sabini has directed the staff to conduct a very thorough review, and information continues to be assembled."
The New York racing board tends to be stricter than authorities in other states and it's not out of the question that it takes some sort of action against Zayat. That could mean taking away his license. Stay tuned.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As the Todd Pletcher juggernaut continues its march towards this year's Kentucky Derby, get used to hearing these numbers: 0 and 24.