An astonishing statistic emerged from a National Thoroughbred Racing Association conference call the other day. Todd Pletcher has been oft criticized for his less than stellar record in the Kentucky Derby. He has sent out 45 starters in Americaâ€™s most famous horse race and has won with only Super Saver.
The surprising factoid is not one of the 45 has been the post-time favorite. Think of all the 3-year-olds with gilded credentials, some undefeated going into the first Saturday in May, Pletcher has brought to Churchill Downs. But the public has always found a non-Pletcher contender they liked more.
That could change this year. If the Derby were being run this Saturday rather than May 6, itâ€™s likely Florida Derby champion Always Dreaming would break from the starting gate as the peopleâ€™s choice. â€śIt would be sort of uncharted waters for us,â€ť Pletcher said.
It would represent a triumph of sorts even before the race is run. â€śThere would be a sense of accomplishment to get a horse there that would be considered the favorite.â€ť
Pletcher feels Always Dreaming is deserving of the honor and has the ability to justify it. â€śWeâ€™re very pleased with the way Always Dreaming has progressed all winter and spring. We were very excited to run him in the Florida Derby and we were even more excited after the race and with the way he has come out of it and trained since.â€ť
Last Saturday's Wood Memorial, Blue Grass Stakes and Santa Anita Derby did nothing to knock Always Dreaming off the top perch. If anything, they solidified his status.
Maybe second choice, too
Thereâ€™s a chance Pletcher could have the favorite and second choice if Malagacy runs big in the Arkansas Derby. Among other things, the son of Shackleford represents this yearâ€™s threat to the curse of Apollo, since he didnâ€™t make his debut until Jan. 4 at Gulfstream.
But if the Cubs can break a 108-year spell, it might be time for a thoroughbred to snap the 135-year streak of a horse who didnâ€™t start as a 2-year-old winning the Kentucky Derby.
Ironically, Malagacy was ticketed to run as a juvenileâ€”in a claiming race. He showed no signs in his early training of being exceptionally talented so Pletcher entered him with a $75,000 tag late last year.
In a stroke of bad fortune/good fortune, the day Pletcher dropped Malagacyâ€™s name into the box, the colt came down with a temperature and had to be scratched.
â€śPart of the reason we considered running him for maiden claiming first time out was he hadnâ€™t shown us much but his lazy side in the morning. It was a blessing that he got the temperature and we had to scratch him. It was interesting that after that, heâ€™s shown to be far better.â€ť
Heâ€™s perfect, in fact, three-for-three as his distances extended from 5 Â˝ furlongs to 6 Â˝ then a mile and a sixteenth in the Rebel.
â€śOne of Malagacyâ€™s strengths is heâ€™s got a high cruising speed. He proved in the Rebel that heâ€™s capable of carrying it around two turns. Whatâ€™s impressed me the most about him is as fast as he is, heâ€™s also very tractable and ratable, willing to sit behind horses when necessary," Pletcher said.
"Javier (Castellano) has commented that heâ€™s kind of a rare horse in that you can ask him to leave the gate and show you some speed, then you can quickly turn him off after you do that. Thatâ€™s one of the reasons why weâ€™re optimistic that heâ€™ll handle a little more ground.â€ť
Casse touts Classic Empire
Mark Casse, who will saddle Eclipse juvenile champion Classic Empire in the Arkansas Derby, would like to file a dissenting opinion on who the Derby favorite will be. â€śI may be a little biased but I have to think if our horse runs really well and wins, heâ€™s going to be the favorite for the Kentucky Derby.â€ť
There are a couple of big ifâ€™s there, especially given Classic Empireâ€™s eventful winter.
It started with a non-menacing third in the Holy Bull, prior to which he became unglued in the walking ring and going to the post. A foot abscess--which might have contributed to his antics at Gulfstream--back issues and, when all seemed well, a refusal to work at the Palm Meadows training center. Thus, the Holy Bull was his only start in 2017.
Casse knows Classic Empire will have to show the talent that earned the Eclipse Award as 2016â€™s outstanding juvenile, starting with the Arkansas Derby, to go to Louisville as the publicâ€™s choice. He feels his son of Pioneer of the Nile is up to it, although like most trainers would, he said a good strong race is more important than winning his final Derby prep.
â€śItâ€™s been a tough road but luckily the last month has gone very well. Do I wish we had another start? Of course, I do. But I put three really strong works into him. The good news is heâ€™s not a big, robust horse. Heâ€™s an athlete. So, itâ€™s not like he carries a lot of excess weight. He has a tremendous amount of ability, which will help him out.â€ť
Classic Empire has had a fancy workmate in recent weeks, Airoforce, a graded stakes winner on dirt and turf. â€śHeâ€™s a good horse in his own right,â€ť Casse said. â€śJulien (Leparoux) worked (Classic Empire) and he worked extremely well. The following week, Julien worked him again and he worked even better.
"He disposed of Airoforce much easier then galloped out really strong. Thatâ€™s the Classic Empire we know. More importantly, heâ€™s a happy horse. We know he has the ability. We just have to keep him happy.â€ť
He clearly wasnâ€™t happy at Gulfstream or Palm Meadows. Casse has no explanation for that. The day of the Holy Bull, it could have been the abscess, which was just beginning to bother Classic Empire, or he resented racing off the one-hour van ride from Palm Meadows to Gulfstream, the explanation initially offered.
Classic Empireâ€™s subsequent refusal to work is inexplicable. â€śThey canâ€™t speak to us, so I donâ€™t have a good answer. Iâ€™m not in any shape or form knocking Palm Meadows because we love it. Itâ€™s been good to us. But itâ€™s crazy.
"Over this winter, weâ€™ve had five or six or seven horses refuse to train. Tepin is one of them. I donâ€™t know what they see or what it is. The good news is, [Classic Empire] is not doing it anymore.â€ť
Casse offered some advice to those who have given up on Classic Empire. â€śI feel that ability wise he is the most talented horse out there.â€ť