Reigning in his emotions has never been a problem for Todd Pletcher. If the five-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer were a tennis player, he would be that guy focused solely on the next point no matter how comfortable a lead he might have.
As has become commonplace in recent years, Pletcher appears to hold a big advantage in the early stages of the Kentucky Derby trail with a barn full of contenders that have a ton of upside.
But even as his prospects advance and flourish, Pletcher remains reserved — partly because that's his nature, but also because he has watched what should have been blowout wins turn into five-set heartbreakers.
Pletcher silenced a round of critics when he won his first Derby in 2010 with Super Saver, but the future Hall of Famer has still endured some humbling setbacks where the first Saturday in May is concerned.
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The Sunday before Super Saver's triumph, Pletcher had to announce his leading contender and likely race favorite, Eskendereya, would miss the Derby because of fluid built up in his leg. Last May, Pletcher pretty much relived that scene when he and owner Mike Repole said one day before the Derby that champion Uncle Mo was being scratched because of an internal ailment.
Though his horses often command a good deal of the prep-race spotlight, none of the 29 starters Pletcher has gotten to the Kentucky Derby starting gate has ever gone off as the betting favorite.
So while pundits and fans talk up the quality of his current roster — a group that includes Holy Bull Stakes winner Algorithms and unbeaten Grade II winner Gemologist — the thing Pletcher wants most is to avoid setbacks.
"I think that's kind of the way you approach anything as a trainer, period, whether it's Derby horses or horses in general," he said. "You kind of always come in every morning hoping that everybody is in as good a condition as they were when you left the night before. It's the nature of the beast.
"When the stakes are this high and expectations are high, that magnifies it a bit. But, in reality, it's sort of the world we live in every day."
Unlike 2011, when Uncle Mo and stablemate Stay Thirsty put the focus on Pletcher's barn from the start, this year's group has largely emerged in recent weeks.
While Gemologist won the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs last November, Algorithms didn't even make his second career start until Dec. 16 because of a slight hock problem that sidelined him after his maiden win in June.
The son of Bernardini took a huge leap up in class when he handily defeated reigning juvenile champion Hansen in the Grade III Holy Bull, an effort that came shortly after fellow Pletcher trainee El Padrino defeated a stakes-quality field in a 11⁄16-mile allowance race on the same card.
Both El Padrino and Algorithms have pedigrees for classic distances to support their talent, but Discreet Dancer might have the most raw brilliance of the bunch. The son of Discreet Cat has played with his rivals in winning his first two starts, the most recent being a gate-to-wire 51/2-length victory in a 1-mile allowance at Gulfstream on Jan. 7.
"So far, I really haven't seen the bottom of him in anything we've done with him," Pletcher said of Discreet Dancer, who missed a workout this past Monday with a fever. "But these horses have all shown the kind of quality it takes to be competitive in these type of races.
"We think, from a talent perspective, they have it. Then the question becomes, what are their distance limitations, but with the pedigrees most of these have, we're optimistic they'll continue to handle the stretch out. The competition gets a little tougher ... and you've just kind of got to try and keep making it to the next round, really."