Wednesday, April 12, 2017
Very likely this year, Todd Pletcher could pass his former boss D. Wayne Lukas for the most starts all-time in the Kentucky Derby. Pletcher, who will start unbeaten Rebel winner Malagacy in Saturday’s $1 million Arkansas Derby, has five horses among the top 20 on the Kentucky Derby qualifying points lists. That includes Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming, who could wind up the Kentucky Derby favorite, pending what happens with Malagacy and 2-year-old champion Classic Empire in the Arkansas Derby. It does not include another promising unbeaten horse, Oaklawn’s Southwest winner One Liner, who was rerouted to from the Arkansas Derby to get some time off after an unsatisfactory workout.
Pletcher has started a total of 43 horses in the Derby, dating to 2000, with a win (Super Saver in 2010), two seconds and three thirds. Lukas, a four-time Derby winner, has had 48 starters, going back to 1981. Pletcher is the only trainer to twice have five horses in a single Kentucky Derby (2007, 2013), with Lukas and fellow Hall of Famer Nick Zito the only others to start a Derby quintet.
Three times Pletcher has started four horses in a Derby (2000, 2010, 2014), with James Rowe Sr. in 1923 the only other trainer to do so.
Surprisingly, what Pletcher has not had is a Derby favorite. (Thanks to Ron Flatter of Vegas Stats & Information Network for that nugget.) Pletcher had the likely favorite a week before the race in 2010 Wood Memorial winner Eskendereya, but that colt was sidelined and ultimately retired with a leg injury. He won the race anyway with Super Saver. He also had the 2-year-old champion of 2010, Uncle Mo, who wound up being scratched the day before the 2011 Derby with what turned out to be a rare liver condition.
“You’re right, it would be sort of uncharted waters for us,” Pletcher, referring to having the morning-line or post-time Kentucky Derby favorite, said on an NTRA media teleconference Tuesday. “I think along with that would be a sense of accomplishment in one way, to get a horse there who would be considered the favorite. But along with that, you’d probably feel a little more pressure as well, as you normally would in most races you’re favored to win…. We’re hoping to be in that position.”
First up, however, is Malagacy in the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby. Malagacy had won two sprint races, by 15 and seven lengths, before winning the 1 1/16-mile Rebel by two lengths over the maiden Sonneteer, who returns to the Arkansas Derby, along with third-place Untrapped, Petrov (fourth), Silver Dust (fifth) and Lookin At Lee (sixth).
“He’s trained well,” Pletcher said of Malagacy, who returned to the trainer’s winter base of Palm Beach Downs after the Rebel and was to fly back from Florida to Arkansas today. “He’s a very kind horse to train. He’s a pretty laid-back colt that doesn’t necessarily tip his hand in the morning. He’s kind of push-button and does what you ask him to do, what his workmate does. Doesn’t overachieve unless you ask him too, and then he’s worked very well. It’s been kind of a steady string of maintenance works since (the Rebel), trying to emphasize stretching him out in distance a bit, and he seems to have handled everything we’ve asked of him so far. We’ve been pointing him toward the Arkansas Derby basically since the Rebel. Knock on wood, everything has gone according to plan.”
Though the Rebel got Malagacy in the Kentucky Derby field, Pletcher is not looking beyond Saturday’s race.
“You’ve got to focus on the first task at hand, the Arkansas Derby in its own right,” he said. “It’s a Grade 1, a $1 million race. In his case, coming off two sprint races, and his first route race being the Rebel, we felt like another race was very important to his preparation possibly for the Kentucky Derby. He handled the stretch-out his first time very well. Now we need more distance again and continue to prove that a mile and an eighth and beyond is within his range. We feel like it is, based on the way he handled the mile and a 16th, the way he’s shown he’s very tractable, very rate-able. But when you’re trying to do something you’ve never done before, you’re hoping they step up with each increment you’re asking them to take on.”
UNTRAPPED AND LOOKIN AT LEE
Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen was on hand to watch his festival horses school on the infield grass after being saddled in the paddock, as will be the protocol for Friday and Saturday’s stakes.
Untrapped, third in the Rebel while nosed out for second, drew post 9 in the Arkansas Derby. Lookin At Lee, sixth in the Rebel after closing from well back, drew post 6.
“I’m very pleased with it,” Asmussen said of his horses’ starting posts. “I would have chosen a notch in for both of them. I’m glad Lookin At Lee is not parked in the grandstand again (after breaking from post 11 in the Rebel). With him not having any pace anyway, he’s already completely out the back. This gives him a chance to be a little closer early, and hopefully he can still put in his late run.
“I think the race is excellent from a draw standpoint with the speed inside (Rockin Rudy and Classic Empire) and far outside (Malagacy). I think it will separate.”
Untrapped has never been worse than third in five prior starts, including seconds in the Fair Grounds’ Grade 3 Lecomte and Grade 2 Risen Star. The son of Trappe Shot picks up one of the greatest money riders in the game in Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith. He also adds blinkers.
“I thought that he dropped the bridle in the middle of the race in the Rebel,” Asmussen said. “Down the backside, it looked like he jumped up and down into the dirt. He was needing to be pushed along, and when he came into the stretch he obviously was lost. But, I think when you’ve used all your cues, what’s next?
“I have two extremely talented horses who are doing really well. I played with the idea of running Lookin At Lee in the Blue Grass, but the race just did not shape up to have any pace. That’s why he’s here.”
Asmussen won his third Arkansas Derby last year with eventual Belmont Stakes winner Creator. He also won in 2007 with two-time Horse of the Year Curlin and in 2002 with Private Emblem.
Champion Stellar Wind tested the Oaklawn surface for the first time Wednesday morning, jogging a mile in over a good surface in preparation for Friday’s $600,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) for older fillies and mares.
“The track was a little wet and sealed,” trainer John Sadler said after watching the 5-year-old daughter of Curlin train. “We’ll gallop her tomorrow.”
Stellar Wind was among four Sadler trainees flown Tuesday from their Southern California base to Arkansas.
Stellar Wind, who captured an Eclipse Award as the country’s champion 3-year-old filly of 2015, will be making her first start since a troubled fourth in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) Nov. 4 at Santa Anita.
Sadler said he had originally targeted the $400,000 Santa Margarita Handicap (G1) March 18 at Santa Anita for Stellar Wind’s comeback race, but Mother Nature forced the trainer to call an audible.
“We had historic amounts of rain in January and February this year,” Sadler said. “She gets a break after the Breeders’ Cup. I think with normal weather she would have made the Santa Margarita, but when it looked like we were going to be too far behind we decided to come to the Apple Blossom.”
Switch ran second in the Santa Margarita and Apple Blossom – the latter won by eventual Horse of the Year Havre de Grace – in 2011 for Sadler.
Sadler said it’s “hard to say” if he would have wheeled Stellar Wind back in the Apple Blossom following an appearance last month in the Santa Margarita.
Stellar Wind is scheduled to break from post 3 Friday under regular rider Victor Espinoza and carry top weight of 122 pounds.
Stellar Wind, who races for Kosta Hronis, has a 7-2-1 record from 12 lifetime starts and earnings of $1,453,200.
COUNT FLEET SPRINT HANDICAP
Lightly raced Moe Candy will make his first start outside California in Saturday’s $400,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (G3) for older horses. Trained by Sadler, the 5-year-old son of Candy Ride has only made seven starts, the last a runner-up finish in the $200,000 Palos Verdes Handicap (G2) Feb. 4 at Santa Anita.
“He didn’t get to the races early – had some issues as a young horse,” Sadler said. “But he’s a very talented horse. He got left the other day at Santa Anita, otherwise he might have won. I think he would have won.”
Moe Candy, who was making his stakes debut in the Palos Verdes, had won his previous three starts. Moe Candy has never finished worse than third in his career.
“He runs very good Rag numbers,” Sadler said, referring to the performance rating service. “Very fast horse.”
Moe Candy is owned by Kosta Hronis, who also has champion Stellar Wind with Sadler.
Robert O’Hara Jr. and Gwyneth Gower’s Sharp Art has proven to be a sharp claim for trainer Matt Kordenbrock, who thinks so highly of the 5-year-old gelding that he will make his next start in Saturday’s $400,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (G3) for older horses.
Sharp Art, a supplemental nominee to the Count Fleet, was claimed for $40,000 Sept. 30 at Indiana Grand.
“He was very consistent,” Kordenbrock said. “He never ever really ran a bad race, and it just seemed like he always showed up to do his job.”
Under Kordenbrock’s care, Sharp Art has two victories, including a Feb. 26 starter allowance at Oaklawn, and two seconds in five starts. He is coming off a fast-closing second in a March 23 allowance/optional claimer.
“We felt we had a nice little useful horse, which we do, but he really seems to be on the upswing,” Kordenbrock said.
Sharp Art has earned $250,920 in a 23-race career that includes seven victories and seven seconds.
John Ed Anthony’s Shortleaf Stable will have two horses in Friday’s $400,000 Fantasy Stakes (G3) for 3-year-old fillies in Benner Island and Dutch Parrot.
Dutch Parrot, an Arkansas-bred daughter of Eskendereya, will be making her stakes debut after beating state-bred allowance company by a length March 30.
“I’ve been confident in the filly the whole time,” trainer Will VanMeter said. “Probably in the back of my mind, I’ve been secretly kind of staging this. I’ve been hoping that this was the outcome when we first came down here.”
Dutch Parrot has made four starts at the meeting. In her only start this year against open company, she finished second to Fantasy entrant Conquest Bandido in a first level allowance/optional claimer at 1 1/16 miles March 16.
The Fantasy is also 1 1/16 miles.
Hall of Fame trainer Neil Drysdale decided to send Vexatious to Oaklawn early to give her plenty of time to settle in. The regally bred daughter of Giant’s Causeway most recently finished third in the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) in her stakes debut.
“I'm taking her to the track a little later today when it is quieter for her to train and relax,” Drysdale said. When we shipped her into Fair Grounds, it was a couple of days before the race and decided it was best to come here a little earlier to acclimated to the track and let her settle in a bit more. We are taking her to the paddock at noon to school and see how she handles everything. Her dam, Dream of Summer (2005 Apple Blossom winner) is proven here and hopefully it translate with this filly. She's handed everything well so far.”