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Don’t be put off by Pletcher’s Kentucky Derby stats

By James Scully

With five horses under consideration, Todd Pletcher could have 25% of the 2017 Kentucky Derby field. He ran five horses in the 2007 and 2013 editions and shares the record with D. Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito for most starters in a single year.

A seven-time Eclipse Award-winning leading trainer, the 49-year-old Pletcher excels along the path to the first leg of the American Triple Crown, winning prep races by the bundle. But his overall Kentucky Derby record is 1-for-45 (2% win).

The statistic hangs over Pletcher as he prepares to pass his mentor, Hall of Famer Lukas, for most starters in Kentucky Derby history (48).

Past Numbers

Since making his debut in 2000, Pletcher has been represented in every Kentucky Derby except 2003. And only twice did he have but a single horse (2002 and 2011). Barring an unprecedented dead-heat, Pletcher can’t win the race more than once in the years with multiple starters.

From 16 runnings in which he’s participated, Pletcher shows a 1-for-16 mark (6% win) that serves as a better representation for me than 1-for-45.

That’s still disappointing considering the win machine Pletcher directs, proving remarkably steady with the same 24% win rate this year (75-for-307) as the five-year period preceding it (1,494-for-6,153). His stable is known for excellence at the highest levels and considering Bob Baffert has an overall 4-for-27 Kentucky Derby record (15% strike clip), winning with only one favorite (American Pharoah) from 18 editions, it hasn’t come close to plan for the Pletcher barn on the first Saturday in May.

Twelve of Pletcher’s 45 Kentucky Derby runners have left the starting gate at 8-1 odds or lower, including Impeachment (finished third) and Trippi, who were part of a four-horse entry at 6-1 in 2000. The rest were uncoupled.

Here are the uncoupled horses at 8-1 or lower in the Kentucky Derby:

Year

 

Horse

 

Odds

 

Finish

2001

 

Balto Star

 

8-1

 

14th

2005

 

Bandini

 

6-1

 

19th

2007

 

Scat Daddy

 

7-1

 

18th

2009

 

Dunkirk

 

5-1

 

11th

2010

 

Super Saver

 

8-1

 

1st

2012

 

Gemologist

 

8-1

 

16th

2013

 

Revolutionary

 

6-1

 

3rd

 

 

Verrazano

 

8-1

 

14th

2014

 

Danza

 

8-1

 

3rd

2015

 

Carpe Diem

 

7-1

 

10th

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eight of those captured their final prep race, the exceptions being Dunkirk and Super Saver. And Super Saver, who dropped both prep races finishing third in the Tampa Bay Derby and second in the Arkansas Derby, highlights a startling stat for Pletcher, who has had never finished first or second in the Kentucky Derby from 23 last-out prep race winners.

Pletcher’s two runner-up finishes in the Kentucky Derby (Invisible Ink at 55-1 in 2001 and Bluegrass Cat at 30-1 in 2006) came with horses exiting fourth-place efforts in the Blue Grass Stakes.

Analysis

Several theories surround Pletcher’s Kentucky Derby record. Some will say many of his horses weren’t suited for the 1 ¼-mile distance, precociously-bred types who were able to carry their form up to 1 1/8 miles due to Pletcher’s skills before being exposed at a classic route of ground.

Another theory centers on Pletcher’s affinity for giving his horses plenty of time between starts. As a result, he’s brought lightly-raced horses to Louisville who perhaps weren’t ready for the pomp and circumstance of the Kentucky Derby. Dunkirk got wiped out early after racing exclusively inside the friendly confines of Gulfstream Park. Destin had never been 1 1/8 miles and failed to fire off a near two-month freshening. Stay Thirsty probably could’ve used another prep after getting nothing out of the Florida Derby. All three were arguably a race short and after getting drilled under the Twin Spires, they came back with optimal performances to just miss in the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes (G1).

And the Flameout Theory holds that some were simply over the top, having already peaked after delivering multiple big races over the winter/early spring.

There may be some truth to these contentions, but I’m not buying the notion that winning the Kentucky Derby isn’t as important to Pletcher as other trainers. Ha! He’s one of the most competitive horsemen in the game, doesn’t give an inch when it comes to winning races. You may disagree with his preparations, but count on Pletcher trying his damndest every year for heavily-invested owners who want nothing more than to be in the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle.

2017 Runners

Let’s take a look at Pletcher’s army:

Always Dreaming (5-3-1-1 record): Doesn’t fit the typical Pletcher profile, registering a 102 BRIS Speed rating winning the Florida Derby (G1) last out but only 89 (maiden) and 84 (entry-level allowance) numbers for victories in his first two outings this year.

In researching Pletcher’s previous top contenders, Danza is the only one who didn’t post a big number in the months preceding the final prep, coming out of nowhere to win the 2014 Arkansas Derby at 41-1. And he continued to move forward three weeks later despite a rough trip from off the pace, finishing a respectable third to California Chrome at Churchill Downs

Always Dreaming’s Speed ratings from the first two starts this year are lower because he got away with tedious fractions on the front end, saving plenty for the latter stages in blowout route wins. The son of 2012 Kentucky Derby runner-up Bodemeister stepped up when it counted, overcoming early trouble in the Florida Derby to settle just off a solid early tempo before finishing strong in a five-length decision. For a forwardly-placed type, his BRIS Late Pace ratings (99-112-99) are outstanding and Always Dreaming could be a major player on Derby Day.

Tapwrit: Looking to rebound similar to Thunder Gulch, who reversed form off a no-show Blue Grass effort to win the 1995 Kentucky Derby at 24-1. Tapwrit was off as the 2-1 second choice at Keeneland following a superb Tampa Bay Derby tally in which he offered eye-catching move on the far turn, but the gray Tapit colt never got involved after a slow start and checked in fifth in the Blue Grass.

Battalion Runner: Wood Memorial runner-up looks like a pace factor. Eligible to keep moving forward off his stakes bow, and he’s bred to relish longer distances, but Battalion Runner’s fastest race came when breaking maiden at one turn in late December.

Patch: Didn’t run at 2 and it’s the longest streak in horse racing, with no unraced juvenile winning the Kentucky Derby in 135 years. Late runner remains a promising type but foundation matters when trying 10 furlongs in early May.

Malagacy: Experienced rough trip in Arkansas Derby, recording a courageous fifth after missing the start, traveling wide throughout and getting repeatedly jostled in the stretch drive, but Malagacy was unraced at 2 and faces a difficult stretch out to 1 ¼ miles considering his one-turn Speed numbers are vastly superior to a pair of route efforts.

Conclusion

Pletcher has sent out viable contenders but he’s never had the Kentucky Derby favorite. And he won’t this year with Classic Empire being the probable choice.

“I’m throwing Pletcher out” has become a familiar refrain from Kentucky Derby bettors, but the trainer’s low win percentage isn’t going to stop a horse like Always Dreaming from showing up with his best on Derby Day.

Past experience can be overrated, with seven of the last nine winning trainers doing so for the first time, and Pletcher’s Kentucky Derby record won’t dissuade me from supporting a horse I fancy.