Pletcher makes no excuses for Derby duds

Louisville — He knows the question is coming — the same one that will be tossed at him every morning for at least the next six days — but in typical Todd Pletcher fashion, he barely bristles.

Pletcher broke into a wry smile Saturday morning as he explained for the umpteenth time how his record of futility in the Kentucky Derby affects him, and what he's doing this season to try to put a stop to it all.

"I figure at 0-for-24 what's the worst that can happen this year," Pletcher laughed. "We can go 0-for-31?"

Having already put together a career that is guaranteed to land him in the Hall of Fame, it's amusing that Pletcher always has to defend his reputation whenever the Derby rolls around.

In addition to mint juleps and ostentatious hats, critiquing Pletcher's Derby record has become a tradition in itself over the last few years.

His lack of success is well documented by now: Of the 24 horses Pletcher has saddled in the Derby since 2000, not a single one has managed to find the winner's circle.

Considering the 42-year-old Pletcher is the same man who has trained eight champions and has won 346 graded stakes races, some are baffled as to why the trainer regarded as arguably the best of his generation hasn't yet captured his sport's biggest prize.

But those who have been through the wringer before say there is more to his record than meets the eye.

"There is probably a little more equation of luck that's involved in the Derby because of the size of the field and the trip that a lot of horses get or don't get," said Elliott Walden, former trainer and current vice president of WinStar Farm, which has two Derby hopefuls this year trained by Pletcher in Rule and Super Saver. "I think Todd is one of the best trainers in the land — if not the best — so I don't really look at that (0-for-24) as a real big thing.

"He can't win as many Grade Is as he's won and as many big races as he's won if he were doing something wrong. It would correlate across the board with all of his stats, not just the Derby."

So much of Derby success hinges on having the "right" horse. For all of the contenders Pletcher has entered, he has never had a group as proven as this year's collection, or as brilliant a standout as Wood Memorial winner Eskendereya.

When Pletcher brought four starters to his first Derby in 2000, they had combined for a total of four graded stakes wins in their 3-year-old campaigns. Though Impeachment put in the best effort of the group, finishing third, he was the least accomplished of the set with only a maiden win to his credit.

Of Pletcher's two Derby runners-up — Invisible Ink (2001) and Bluegrass Cat (2006) — neither had earned a graded stakes win as a 3-year-old prior to May.

Last year, the Pletcher-trained Dunkirk went off as the second choice in the Derby. But he was more the product of hype than substance as his only victories came in maiden and allowance races.

"With Pletcher ... he's never come in here with the best horse," said three-time Derby winning trainer Bob Baffert. "This is the first time he's come in here with the top horse in Eskendereya, so it's a different feeling for him for sure."

Pletcher may not have had the Derby favorite prior to this season but, with top clients such as WinStar Farm and Coolmore Stud, he's had far more classic potential to work with than trainers such as Chip Woolley, Michael Matz and Barclay Tagg — all of whom won the Derby in their first attempt.

To his credit, Pletcher makes few excuses for his lack of a Derby win. Even more admirable is the fact that he doesn't believe his expansive prior accomplishments entitle him to anything.

"It doesn't have to happen. I don't take it for granted that we're going to win the Derby," Pletcher said. "I don't know if I get more tired of 'He's definitely going to win the Derby, we just don't know when,' or the 0-for 24.

"It's the race I want to win so I'm no different than anyone in that regard. But I don't know if I win the Derby on May 1 that I'd be any better a trainer than I was on April 30."

As with most of the demands that come with getting his horses ready for the Derby, Pletcher has come to accept the yearly criticism as part of his routine.

For the famously meticulous trainer, though, it's the one regular drill he'd like to change soon.

"In my eyes we're 0-for-9 in the Derby with a couple seconds, a third, and a fourth," he said. "It's not a horrible record when you look at it in that perspective. But until we win one, we have to answer it. It's as simple as that."