It has become an annual rite for Todd Pletcher, ever since he famously showed up for his Kentucky Derby debut 13 years ago with four starters in tow.
With the exception of 2003, when he was absent, the question has never been whether the five-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer will be saddling a horse in the first leg of the Triple Crown but rather how many he will be tending to, as his number of Derby starters stands at 31, with Super Saver (2010) his lone victor.
The voluminous nature of Pletcher's operation has made it so that nothing less than high-quality depth is expected from his annual 3-year-old crop.
Still, while acknowledging how fate can abruptly knock everything off its axis, even the future Hall of Famer is hard pressed to recall a time when his shedrow stood in as solid a stead on the Derby trail as it does this year.
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"We all know things can go wrong between now and the first Saturday of May, but, you know, I can't recall having the depth in the stable that we have at the moment," Pletcher said during a teleconference this week. "Not only to have the reigning 2-year-old champ, but several other ones that the expectations are just as high for."
For this weekend's preps — the first races worth 50 points to the winner under the new Kentucky Derby qualifying system — Pletcher will call on unbeaten Grade I winner Violence for Saturday's Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park and promising maiden winner Palace Malice in the Grade II Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds.
So far this season, Pletcher has already sent juvenile champion Shanghai Bobby out to a runner-up finish in the Grade III Holy Bull Stakes on Jan. 26 and watched brilliant allowance winner Verrazano and Withers Stakes victor Revolutionary deliver respective "wow" outings within hours of each other on Feb. 2.
Owned by Black Rock Thoroughbreds, Violence's season debut ranks among the most anticipated; he fits the classic profile as well as any sophomore in the mix. The dark bay son of Medaglia d'Oro has already won at three tracks over two surfaces while racing on both coasts, capping his 2-year-old campaign with a rallying 1¼-length win in the Grade I CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park on Dec. 15.
That Violence handled Hollywood Park's synthetic surface and the CashCall's 11⁄16-mile distance off his win in the Grade II Nashua at Aqueduct in November was only half of what impressed Pletcher. In addition to taking to the cross-country journey without turning a hair, Violence gave his conditioner the impression he was knocking off opponents without knocking himself out.
"So far he's just been a consummate professional," Pletcher said. "I was particularly impressed by his 7-furlong maiden win the first time out when he ran against more seasoned horses ... and I think the next two races were maybe a little easier than they looked, particularly the CashCall Futurity.
"I felt like he took the lead mid-stretch and he idled a little bit and pricked his ears coming to the wire. I felt like there was more to give, so, you know, just love everything about him so far."
Both Violence and Palace Malice will face large fields Saturday with 11 entered for the 11⁄16-mile Fountain of Youth (Sky Captain is expected to scratch) and 14 slated to run in the 11⁄16-mile Risen Star. The two colts worked together last Sunday covering 5 furlongs in a bullet 1:00.36 at Palm Meadows with Pletcher stating he was unable to separate the two at the wire.
"I thought it was a super workout for both horses," he said.
After breaking his maiden at Saratoga last August, Dogwood Stable's Palace Malice was beaten in his 2013 debut by the slop-loving Majestic Hussar — who is entered in the Fountain of Youth — over a wet track going 7 furlongs at Gulfstream on Jan. 19.
Being by two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, added distance would appear to be welcome for Palace Malice in order to show his best run.
"Palace Malice is a horse that ... gives every indication that two turns is what he's looking for," Pletcher said. "We would be a bit surprised if that didn't turn out to be the case."
Pletcher joked Tuesday there was no point keeping the expectations for Violence in check because "we all know what the expectations are at this point."
Even moreso than in the past, the same could be said for Pletcher's collective sophomore lineup.
"We're excited about it, but we're also realistic and hopeful we can continue to keep them healthy," he said.
Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream
When: 5:35 p.m.
Favorite: Violence (9-5)
Risen Star at Fair Grounds
When: 5:57 p.m.
Favorite: Normandy Invasion (5-2)
Complete fields, Page B3
FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH FIELD
PP Horse Jockey Odds
1 Orb Velazquez 12-1
2 Joshua's CompriseLanerie 30-1
3 Violence Castellano 9-5
4 Majestic HussarSaez 6-1
5 Elmutahid Bravo 20-1
6 Cerro Rocco Jr. 4-1
7 Sky Captain Husbands 10-1
8 Speak LogisticsRosario 12-1
9 He's Had EnoughGutierrez 8-1
10 Falling Sky Espinoza 6-1
RISEN STAR STAKES FIELD
PP Horse Jockey Odds
1 Proud Strike Stevens 8-1
2 Code WestGarcia 6-1
3 Agent Eramia 30-1
4 Golden SoulMena 20-1
5 Mylute Bridgmohan 6-1
6 Palace Malice Napravnik 8-1
7 Hardrock Eleven Theriot 50-1
8 Ive Struck a NerveGraham 30-1
9 Normandy InvasionLezcano 5-2
10 Oxbow Court 5-1
11 Bethel Diego 50-1
12 Circle Unbroken Goncalves 20-1
13 DepartingHernandez Jr.12-1
Alicia Wincze Hughes updates her Derby Dozen rankings in the Herald-Leader's first Derby Watch of 2013.