Saturday, April 26, 2014
Todd Pletcher is going after the Kentucky Derby with numbers again.
The trainer who has won the America's greatest race once could saddle four horses. Little-known Mike Maker could have three starters, while three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert has two contenders.
Art Sherman has just one. But it's a really good one.
California Chrome is expected to be the favorite for the 140th Derby next Saturday. The colt brings a four-race winning streak into Churchill Downs, having won those by a combined 24 ¼ lengths.
"I've never had a horse that did that before," said Sherman, who began training in 1980 after being a jockey for 21 years and later a racing official. "I just want my horse to have a fair shake at it and have good racing luck, and I'm sure hopeful for him. He's a gutty little horse."
Pletcher knows something about luck.
Four years ago, he ended a 0-for-24 skid when long shot Super Saver, one of four horses he entered, won under a rail-hugging ride by Calvin Borel. That was the year Pletcher had the favorite, Eskendereya, who was forced to drop out six days before the Derby with a leg injury. He also had the horse to beat in 2011, Uncle Mo, who was scratched with a stomach ailment on Derby eve.
This year, Pletcher's quartet is made up of Arkansas Derby winner Danza, Risen Star winner Intense Holiday, Spiral Stakes winner We Miss Artie and Vinceremos, who finished 14th in the Blue Grass.
California Chrome will need some luck tangling with an expected full field of 20 horses for the 1 1/4-mile race at Churchill Downs. The final lineup won't be known until Wednesday, when entries are drawn and post positions are assigned.
Baffert's ace is Hoppertunity, who won the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park. The colt will try to buck a Derby jinx that has no horse since Apollo in 1882 winning without racing as a 2-year-old.
"You need a really good horse because you need a lot of luck," said Baffert, who also has Sunland Derby winner Chitu.
Maker's trio of contenders is Louisiana Derby winner Vicar's in Trouble, General a Rod and Harry's Holiday.
"I think it's going to be a very lively pace," he said. "I feel my horses they can adjust to whatever the pace calls for."
Maker has had five previous Derby starters, including Hansen, who was ninth in 2012. Both he and Pletcher are former assistants to Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, a four-time Derby winner.
Vicar's in Trouble will be ridden by Rosie Napravnik, who will try to become the first female jockey to win the Derby. Her husband, Joe Sharpe, is an assistant to Maker.
Last year, Napravnik rode Mylute to a fifth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby behind Orb and a third-place finish in the Preakness behind Oxbow. Those finishes were the best by a female rider in each race.
Sherman is going for a bit of history himself.
The 77-year-old could become the oldest trainer to win, surpassing Charlie Whittingham, who was 76 when Sunday Silence won in 1989.
Graham Motion, who trained 2011 Derby winner Animal Kingdom, is back with Ring Weekend, who won the Tampa Bay Derby.
Steve Asmussen trains Tapiture, the Southwest Stakes winner. He's under investigation after an animal rights group alleged mistreatment by him and a former assistant. Asmussen's nomination to the Racing Hall of Fame was put on hold last month in the wake of the allegations.
This year's road to the Derby trail claimed a number of contenders, including Constitution, who is trained by Pletcher, and Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner New Year's Day, who is trained by Baffert. Also knocked out with an injury was Cairo Prince. Another of Baffert's horses, Midnight Hawk, was dropped from Derby consideration after finishing second in the Illinois Derby.
For the second straight year, the field of 20 starters is being determined by points.
Churchill Downs established a system that awards a sliding scale of points to the top four finishers in 34 designated races. The top 20-point earners earn a spot in the Derby starting gate.