LOUISVILLE — Stabled one barn over from fellow trainer Shug McGaughey on the Churchill Downs backside, Eddie Plesa Jr. and his wife, Laurie, have a keen view of the reality that was theirs not that long ago.
Leading up to the Grade I Florida Derby in March, the Plesas' charge, Itsmyluckyday, had the flattery of being the favorite in what was considered one of the stauncher preps on the Kentucky Derby trail. The humans around him, however, had to bear the weight of those expectations.
"The Florida Derby, there was so much pressure, oh my God it was awful," recalled Laurie Plesa, who owns Itsmyluckyday in partnership with Trilogy Stable and counts her husband as her trainer. "After the race it was like, 'OK, now we're not the favorite anymore.'
"Now it's over there," she added with a gesture toward Barn 43.
It was McGaughey's trainee Orb who defeated Itsmyluckyday by 23/4 lengths in the Florida Derby, inheriting the role of likely Kentucky Derby favorite and the intense attention that comes with it.
Disappointing as that defeat was in the moment, Eddie Plesa maintains it was all part of his grand plan to have his colt steal back the focus of the Thoroughbred racing community come Saturday evening.
In his seven starts during his juvenile season, Itsmyluckyday showed bubbles of promise when he won three races, including two minor stakes at his base, Calder Race Course.
During a 26-day span at the start of 2013, the son of Lawyer Ron ran to the forefront of the divisional ranks when he won the Gulfstream Park Derby on New Year's Day and defeated reigning juvenile champion Shanghai Bobby in the Grade III Holy Bull Stakes on Jan. 26.
Since that effort affirmed Plesa had a horse capable of a top performance in the first leg of the Triple Crown, the Florida-based horseman opted to start restocking the colt's tank for when the time came to really gun it.
As strong as Itsmyluckyday has performed off relatively short rest, Plesa decided to shelve him until the Florida Derby on March 30 and ease off his training in the run-up to that test.
Thus, when Fountain of Youth Stakes winner Orb overtook his would-be rival in the lane of the 11⁄8-mile prep, Plesa was partially let down, yet partially buoyed.
"My plan wasn't the Florida Derby, as much as I would have liked to have won that race," said Plesa, who started the filly Three Ring in the 1999 Kentucky Derby only to watch her get jostled around while finishing last. "Everything was set up for this Saturday.
"If you were going to look ahead, which you have to, you need to come up with a plan. So after the Holy Bull we backed off him, he was in very light training for a good 2½ weeks ... we were allowing him to recoup from two tough races and get ready for what could be in front of him. So did we do the right thing for the horse? Yes. Did we do the right thing for the Florida Derby? No. But this (the Kentucky Derby) is the objective."
The energy Itsmyluckyday showed when he bounded off the track after his 11/2-mile gallop on Tuesday showed Plesa the fitness excuse is off the table. And indeed, the colt has thrived when his conditioning has been tested the most.
All five of his career wins have come off turnarounds of 25 days or less. Part of the reason Plesa said he will not give Itsmyluckyday a blowout over the Churchill track is because he feels the sandy Calder surface the colt trains over has prepared him as well as any.
"I don't think a breeze over this racetrack is going to make any difference to him whether he wins or loses. All the work has been done," Plesa said. "It's like if you're going to run at the beach and you run on the soft side of the beach as opposed to where the water and the surf is, you're going to get a lot more out of it — and that's Calder."
Just as McGaughey said he has seen sharp physical maturity from Orb in recent weeks, Plesa echoes that statement on his own charge.
"When horses turn 3, they become like men and you can see he's become that man," Plesa said. "The process of maturing is hitting him."
The process of getting to the Derby and handling the crush is one Plesa said he is more prepared for himself than when he made the journey 14 years ago. While he welcomes the chance to spread the mainstream word about his beloved sport, he is happy to let others bear the brunt of the pre-race hype in exchange for post-race success.
"If there was a good to finishing second in the Florida Derby, it is the pressure has been taken off of us," Plesa said. "The horse can't feel it but the people around him can, and I've been pretty steadfast with the plan that we've had going in."