Pletcher’s Derby strategy continues to be flawed

Screen Shot 2013-09-10 at 9.44.52 PMWhile trainer Bob Baffert won his fourth Kentucky Derby, with American Pharoah, the country’s leading trainer for the past four years, Todd Pletcher, saw his Derby record fall to 1-43, with 31 of his starters finishing ninth or worse.

In Saturday’s race at Louisville, before a record crowd of 170,513, Pletcher was 6th with Materiality, 9th with Itsaknockout and 10th with Carpe Diem, the No. 3 betting favorite whom he considered his best 3-year-old.  Earlier in the week he scratched a fourth entrant, Stanford, because his front-running style would compromise the effort of his other pace-setter, Materiality.

Pletcher got a terrible break, literally, when the speedy Materiality broke last from the gate.  He still ran a powerful race, advancing from 17th at the mile.  With a better start he could be a force in the Preakness Stakes, second leg of the Triple Crown, a week from Saturday in Baltimore.

The trainers of the Derby horses are holding off on committing to the Preakness until they see how well they came out of the grueling 1 ¼ miles in what turned out to be a field of 18.  Derby runners typically lose at least 100 pounds from running that race.  It’s almost impossible for them to come back just two weeks later and be as strong as they were in the Derby.

What makes the Preakness such a challenge is that these horses will face fresh competitors at Pimlico, where some are lying in wait.  Already committed is Divining Rod, who comes off a victory in the Grade III Lexington Stakes at 1 1/16 miles.

Divining Rod likes to run on the front, so we should see more pace in the Preakness than what we saw at Churchill. 

Without Materiality and Stanford the first quarter-mile at the Derby was run in just 23.4 seconds, which made it easy for American Pharoah to stalk and take over at the whim of jockey Victor Espinoza.  The slow pace left little chance for Carpe Diem to put on a closing rush.  That said, Frosted, the Wood Memorial winner, managed a strong finish to close within a neck of the third-place – and weakening – Dortmund.

Aside from bad luck, there’s another reason Pletcher does poorly in the Derby, and he has only himself to blame.  He refuses to work out his horses on the Churchill Downs track, which he admits is a unique surface to which some cannot adapt.

“I’d rather work them where they’re comfortable,” he has said.  “If you work them at Churchill and they don’t like the track, they’re not going to run well in the Derby anyway.”

It’s a logical theory, but his persistent failure might cause him to question its validity.

As a horse owner myself (though not thoroughbreds), I’ve found these wonderful animals to be rather skittish when you take them somewhere they haven’t been.  My theory, which seems to be supported by almost every other Derby trainer besides Pletcher, is that you want to familiarize them with the place you want them to run.  I would think that when you add a crowd of 170,000 to the mix, you only increase the chance that they will be nervous for their big event.

Baffert believes in the power of familiarity.  He gave American Pharoah a brisk – very brisk – workout at Churchill the Sunday before the race.  His other entrant, Dortmund, did not work out at Louisville, but there was no question of his liking the track, because he won a race there by seven lengths last November.

“When trainers say the horse doesn’t like the track,” Baffert has said, “it’s usually just an excuse.  The horse wasn’t ready to run – anywhere.”

Curiously, Baffert has had many a disappointment in the Belmont Stakes, the final event of the Triple Crown.  He makes no secret of his disdain for New York (that’s a Californian for you), so he doesn’t like to work out his horses there before the race.

Here’s another curious fact:  On the undercard of Saturday’s Derby, Pletcher entered a classy colt, Competitive Edge, in the Pat Day Mile, after working him on the Churchill track eight days before his race.  Competitive Edge then won the Grade III stakes with a blazing time of 1:34.  The son of Super Saver, who was Pletcher’s lone Derby winner, could be a top contender in the Preakness if he can stretch his range to 1 3/16 miles.

You have to wonder why Pletcher doesn’t give his Derby horses the same competitive edge, a workout at Churchill Downs.

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