Bob Baffert might have the top two favorites in American Pharoah and Dortmund heading into Kentucky Derby 141, but Todd Pletcher is once again the strongest proponent of the more the merrier.
This year, however, there's a twist.
"We've got some horses with some pretty strong résumés," said the seven-time Eclipse Award winning trainer early Saturday morning — and we do mean early — at Keeneland. "I don't know that we've ever gotten here with the undefeated Florida Derby winner, the Blue Grass and Breeders' Futurity winner."
That's just half the Todd Squad. In total, Thoroughbred racing's volume shooter is expected to have four horses in the gate next Saturday when the 141st Run for the Roses commences at Churchill Downs.
Four would bring to 44 the number of horses Pletcher has entered in the sport's most important race, placing him just three behind the record of 47 held by his former boss and mentor, D. Wayne Lukas.
Yet while Lukas, who could have entry No. 48 in this year's field, has won the race four times, the 47-year-old Pletcher has won the Derby just once, back in 2010 with WinStar Farm's Super Saver.
Maybe that's why Pletcher was wearing a WinStar Super Saver jacket Saturday morning to view the 5:30 a.m. work of another WinStar-owned star, this time in partnership with Stonestreet Stables.
Thanks to the red blinking light atop jockey John Velazquez's cap, Pletcher watched Blue Grass Stakes winner Carpe Diem complete his final tune-up before being shipped to Churchill Downs on Monday.
In Louisville, Carpe Diem will join Florida Derby winner Materiality, Fountain of Youth winner Itsaknockout and Louisiana Derby runner-up Stanford as members of Pletcher's 2015 Derby fleet. That's some strong stuff.
"But you could say that about a lot of horses in this field," Pletcher said.
You couldn't always say that about Pletcher's platoons, however. Quantity hasn't always meant quality. Since 2000, Pletcher has entered more than twice as many horses in the Derby as has Baffert (16), Nick Zito (14), Steve Asmussen (13) and Lukas (12). Yet while Baffert has boasted the favorite three times and Zito twice since 2000, Pletcher has never saddled the Derby's top betting choice.
In fact, of Pletcher's 40 entries, only 11 have the left the gate at odds in the single digits. One of the 11 was Super Saver at odds of 8-1. But the favorite that year was Baffert's Lookin At Lucky at 6-1.
Were it not for bad luck, Pletcher could have had several Derby morning-line favorites. Eskendereya was injured right before the Derby in 2010. Uncle Mo showed a rare liver disease in 2011. Shanghai Bobby suffered an injury in 2012. Last year, Constitution was a perfect 3-for-3 after winning the Florida Derby, then suffered a hairline fracture.
At the time, Pletcher called it, "One of the biggest disappointments of my career,"
This year: So far, so good. Carpe Diem has been so impressive it seems like Materiality, 3-for-3 lifetime, has been overlooked. Or is that because no horse that did not race as a 2-year-old has won the Kentucky Derby since Apollo in 1882?
"I just think there's a lot of horses to talk about in this field," Pletcher said. "I don't think that's a slight on him, just more of a compliment to the depth of the field."
Itsaknockout is expected to bounce back from his fourth-place finish in the Florida Derby. Stanford was just a neck behind International Star at the finish of the Louisiana Derby.
Then there's Carpe Diem, who as the 2-5 favorite gave Pletcher his third Blue Grass Stakes win. Yet his most impressive race may have been one he didn't win, coming from back in the pack to finish second behind the now-injured Texas Red in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
"I think it's helpful that he got that experience in the Breeders' Cup," Pletcher said. "He's gotten a lot of good experience that maybe some of the other top contenders haven't had."
What Pletcher would like to get is that second Derby triumph. In this race, however, having the best horses doesn't always guarantee the best results.