For Face the Cat, like so many others in Gulfstream Park’s signature event, Saturday is the Kentucky Derby.
Like Rick Dutrow and Florida Derby favorite Big Brown, Pletcher is learning more about Face the Cat every day. He took over his training soon after long-time patron Satish Sanan purchased a majority interest following the colt’s impressive allowance win at a mile over the Florida Derby track.
For Sanan and the colt’s other partners, they can only hope that he turns out half as good as the horse trainer Steve Asmussen helped buy from Helen Pitts’ outfit last year after his impressive Gulfstream Park win. But then not many young three-year-olds go on to become Horse of the Year the way Curlin did in 2007.
So, what has Pletcher learned since the sale? “He’s very laid back, he handles nicely, doesn’t get anxious or nervous. Johnny [Velazquez] worked him the other day for the first time [5 furlongs in 1:01, breezing, at Palm Beach Downs] and he liked him.
“He thought he was very tractable. But he can be a little lazy…he’s not overly ambitious.”
What is ambitious is Saturday’s level of competition, going from preliminary allowances and moving up in class and distance into Grade 1 company. “He made a progression into the allowance race, but he’s got to continue to improve. To get there, he needs to take baby steps,” said Pletcher.
Pletcher has no idea how good Face the Cat is, but he thinks the three year-old class is a tough read, too.
“When a three-year-old can win races like the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders’ Cup Classic, that tells you how good a crop is. Obviously, last year’s crop was exceptional with Curlin the Horse of the Year.
“Pyro deserves to be [the division leader]. His Risen Star was extremely impressive, electrifying. His Louisiana Derby was very good. Denis Of Cork was very good in the Southwest. Adriano was impressive in the Lane’s End. What will be interesting is to see how the California horses run coming off that Polytrack. Since the track was changed it’s been all closers. The jocks are even riding differently, like Keeneland. It distorts the results. It’s hard to figure.”
Pletcher is well aware of statistics indicating that no horse from post 11 or 12 has won at the two-turn distance since Gulfstream was reconfigured in 2005, but the strategy for Face the Cat is fairly simple. “He won going six furlongs and a mile, so I think he’d be prominent early. Johnny will have to play it off the break.”
Then Pletcher took some comfort from last year’s successful South Florida campaign with Scat Daddy. “I think he won [the Fountain of Youth] from the 9 or 10.”
Like everyone in the race who needs his horse to run well, Pletcher will play the hand that’s dealt. “I think last year you needed $150,000 [to get into the Derby]. It probably will take the same, maybe a little more. I could have run him in the Rebel but I thought he would need more time. One prep suits him, he’s two for two at Gulfstream, so this race made a lot of sense.”
But is the 8-1 fifth choice good enough to win the Florida Derby? “I don’t know,” said the trainer of Face the Cat. “What you hope is that he breaks well, gets a good trip around the first turn, makes his run, and wins. That’s what you hope for.”
As for Pletcher’s six other Kentucky Derby prospects, they, too, must prove themselves before moving on. “On The Verge will run in the Santa Anita Derby; Atoned in the Illinois Derby. Texas Wildcatter will run back in the Wood. We’re getting a little ambitious with this one, but Spurrier will run in Illinois or the Wood. Cowboy Cal and Monba are both going to the Blue Grass.”
As for the future, “they all need to go well” first. For Face the Cat, that test comes Saturday at Gulfstream Park.