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|Trainer Todd Pletcher hopes to flood the Kentucky Derby starting gate with runners.|
Todd Pletcher nominated 42 horses to the Triple Crown, a staggering number that represents an unprecedented attack on the Kentucky Derby. On paper, he is Goliath and everyone else is going into the Triple Crown wars seemingly undermanned (or is it underhorsed?). Pletcher has done the impossible, made Bob Baffert (with 18 nominees) look like the underdog.
Pletcher tends to nominate just about every 3 year old in his barn to the Triple Crown, part of the reason why he has so many nominees. It's also goes to show what you can do when your clients go to the sales and don't know the meaning of no. Thirty-four of Pletcher's 42 nominees were bought at auction and they cost a combined $13,072,000.
But quantity and quality are different, which Pletcher, with his 1-for-31 Derby record, knows better than anyone. Don't be surprised if 2014 is still another year when Pletcher comes up empty in the Kentucky Derby as the number of horses he has nominated isn't totally representative of the strength of his hand. His army has more privates than generals.
When Gary West ranked the top 100 Derby contenders a couple of weeks back for ESPN.com he had only one Pletcher horse (Commissioner at No. 5) in his top 10 and only three in his Top 20. (With Pletcher running one-two in the Sam F. Davis last weekend at Tampa, West may have upgraded some of Team Todd's horses since he released his list).
West wasn't being overly harsh on Pletcher. Consider: Seven of his nominees have won on turf only. Four have yet to start. Four are fillies. Seven are still maidens.
That leaves 20. Three others have not started this year and, as of Jan. 30, had not had a published workout in 2014. With the Derby just three months away they are playing a difficult game of catch-up. Master Lightning was beaten 10 lengths on Jan. 25 in a small stakes at Laurel. Pax in Tera has been running in New York-bred maidens at Aqueduct. Monopolize looked nothing like a serious contender when outrun in a Jan. 25 allowance at Gulfstream won by Top Billing.
One of the reasons why Pletcher's group isn't that accomplished is because so many of his better 3-year-olds were late to get to the races. Pletcher has had a number of maiden winners at Gulfstream, three of which (Anchor Down, Constitution and Hartford) did not race as two year olds. Considering that no horse has won the Derby without having had a start at two since 1882, here are three more horses that may be fighting a battle they can't win.
Pletcher has about seven or eight horses that look like realistic Kentucky Derby contenders at this point. These look like his best hopes:
Commissioner: He defeated the highly regarded Top Billing, who has since come back to win, in a Jan. 3 allowance at Gulfstream. He'll likely show up next in the Fountain of Youth.
Havana: He was Pletcher's best 2 year old last year. He won the Champagne and was second in the Breeders' Cup. The problem with him is that he did not have a workout this year until a three-furlong breeze last Saturday. He's not going to be ready any time soon.
Vinceremos/Harpoon: They were a nose apart at the wire with Vinceremos prevailing over his stablemate in the Sam F. Davis last Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs. It was not a particularly strong field.
Intense Holiday: Is just 1 for 6 lifetime but his third-place finish in the Holy Bull is better than it looks. He drew a terrible post (No. 11) and lost by just 6 ¼ lengths in a race where Cairo Prince was off-the-charts good.
We Miss Artie: A Grade 1 winner, but that victory came on a synthetic surface in the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland. He's 0 for 2 on dirt. Owner Ken Ramsey has made no secret of his desires to win the Derby so this one will be in the starting gate if Pletcher can get him there, but his future is probably on the grass.
Hartford: Maybe the most impressive of the 3-year-olds Pletcher has unveiled at the Gulfstream meet, by Tapit, he's a $700,000 yearling buy that won his debut by 5 ¾ lengths. There's a long way to go from a January maiden race at Gulfstream to the Kentucky Derby, but he might just be talented enough to pull it off.
There's something to be said for strength in numbers, but just how good is his group? Forty-two nominees or not, that remains to be seen.