LOUISVILLE — On one hand, Todd Pletcher is doing exactly what is expected of him — which only adds to the absurdity of his situation.
Ever since the five-time Eclipse Award winning trainer brought four horses to his first Kentucky Derby in 2000, racing fans have come to expect nothing less than an annual juggling act from his barn. Only twice in Pletcher's 12 prior Derby outings has he just had one contender to saddle, while on three occasions he has invaded the paddock with four or more starters.
Considering his more-is-more past, no one should be bowled over to see a lineup of five confirmed starters from Pletcher's barn for this year's Kentucky Derby, with a sixth entrant possible.
The really scary part of Pletcher's brigade this season is that his numbers aren't even the most overwhelming part. Despite losing juvenile champion Shanghai Bobby and Grade I winner Violence to injury along the way, Pletcher himself has a hard time arguing against his current bunch as his best Derby representation ever.
The real strength of the 2013 Todd Squad are the figures and depth behind their collective achievements. Pletcher is the first trainer to have the winners of the Grade I Wood Memorial (Verrazano), Grade I Arkansas Derby (Overanalyze) and Grade II Louisiana Derby (Revolutionary) all on his Derby roster. He's also got the second- and third-place finishers in the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes, Palace Malice and Charming Kitten.
Plus, Winning Cause, who won the Grade III Coolmore Lexington Stakes, remains under consideration for the Derby with a decision likely to be made after the colt works on Monday.
"Best ever," Pletcher dutifully said when asked how his current Derby roster compares to those past, flashing a grin that suggested if he was exaggerating, it wasn't by much. "It's like my dad always tells me every year in Ocala (Fla.), he says 'I think we've got the best group we've ever had'. And I say 'You said that last year and the year before.'"
"We all know that just having five doesn't also mean that you're going to win the race. But all that being said, you know, we absolutely couldn't be more happy with the cards we're holding."
Pletcher is far from the only trainer who has both large numbers to work with and owners who give him quality stock. Still, it is his barn's Derby-centric intangibles that have all but eliminated the yearly question of if he'll have a prospect.
"I think it's a focal point (of Pletcher's) and I think anybody that has been in the Derby consistently, it becomes something they think about year round," said Elliott Walden, president of WinStar Farm which owns Revolutionary. "There is a reason guys like Pletcher ... have horses in it every year because you have to push a little bit and you have to give and take, but you have to keep moving the train forward.
"It all starts in September, October. You don't get to the first of March and think 'I'm going to run in the Kentucky Derby.'"
By virtue of his unbeaten record in four career starts, Verrazano stands as Pletcher's highest profile contender. The son of More Than Ready has countered the Derby stigma of not having raced as a juvenile by putting together a string of brilliant wins at three different tracks over distances from 61/2 furlongs to his three-quarter length victory in the 11⁄8-mile Wood Memorial.
"He's shown us he is a special horse early on," Pletcher said. "It's very rare to see a horse accomplish what he has in a short period of time. He's been able to handle everything we've asked him to do and he is a tremendous physical specimen.
"It just seems like he continues to get bigger and stronger as we go along."
Though Verrazano is likely to be the Derby morning-line favorite when entries are drawn Wednesday, it is Revolutionary whom many feel has been training best of the crew at Churchill Downs and has more potential.
Where Verrazano and his early speed may have the market cornered in flash, Revolutionary wears the banner for battled-tested. His narrow victory in the Grade III Withers Stakes came on the same day Verrazano cantered to a 161/4-length win in an allowance race at Gulfstream Park but garnered nearly as much praise considering the ridiculous amount of trouble he had to overcome.
Last at the head of the lane and stuck inside, the son of War Pass had to angle sharply to get between horses and notch his triumph. Even with the drama, Revolutionary was still able to gallop out several lengths ahead of his foes. Eight weeks later, he was still dead fit when he held off Mylute to win the Louisiana Derby by a neck.
"At no point even inside the eighth pole did I think he would win from where he had come from," Pletcher said of the Withers. "I thought he was a pretty good horse before that but my respect for him went up a notch after."
When Remsen Stakes winner Overanalyze ran fifth in the Grade III Gotham Stakes on March 2, it was tempting to write Mike Repole's bay colt off as one who hadn't moved forward off his juvenile form.
The field he beat in the Arkansas Derby might not rank as the most stout of Kentucky Derby preps but his widening 41/4-length win that day gives Overanalyze the distinction of being the only Derby contender with two victories going 11⁄8 miles.
"We were disappointed his first start back but his six weeks in between ... each week was a little bit better," said Pletcher who, for good measure, also has four fillies set to start in the Kentucky Oaks. "I mean we're blessed. We're in a great position."
Record: 4 starts, 4-0-0.
Claim to fame: Defeated previously unbeaten Vyjack and Normandy Invasion to win Grade I Wood Memorial on April 6.
Todd says: "He hasn't shown us anything in his training and racing that says he will not (get 11/4 miles). The way he handled the track ... I'm more confident seeing his two breezes here than I was coming in."
Record: Six starts, 3-1-2.
Claim to fame: Followed up trouble-filled Wither Stakes victory with a win by a neck in Grade II Louisiana Derby.
Todd says: "In some ways, Revolutionary is a late bloomer because he didn't display the professionalism in the afternoons that he did in the morning. He's starting to figure it out and get a little more professional with his races."
Record: Seven starts, 4-0-1.
Claim to fame: Won Grade I Arkansas Derby on April 13.
Todd says: "Anytime you have a horse like him win the Remsen in 11⁄8 miles in November, you're certainly hoping they're going to be able to continue on and train well at three."
Record: Six starts, 1-3-1.
Claim to fame: Second in Grade I Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
Todd says: "We will put the blinkers on for the (Derby). I thought he handled them well (in his work) and they focused him in just a little bit without making him too keen."
Record: Seven starts, 2-2-2.
Claim to fame: Third in Grade I Blue Grass Stakes.
Todd says: "Charming Kitten's sort of gotten here a little bit in an unorthodox way by never really having run on the dirt. But we were always impressed by the way he trained and the way he'd run."
Record: Seven starts, 3-1-0.
Claim to fame: Won Grade III Coolmore Lexington Stakes.
Todd says: "We're keeping an open mind and we'll see how the horse trains this week."
Alicia Wincze Hughes
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.