John Clay: Several trainers earn multiple shots at Derby title

Charles Fipke kisses Java's War after the colt won the Blue Grass Stakes Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, KY on April 13, 2012. Photo by Carlos Ramos
Charles Fipke kisses Java's War after the colt won the Blue Grass Stakes Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, KY on April 13, 2012. Photo by Carlos Ramos Herald-Leader

After his horse Java's War won the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes on Saturday at Keeneland, trainer Kenny McPeek, the old Tates Creek High School graduate, was asked if this is a wide open 139th Kentucky Derby.

"Every year is wide open," McPeek answered. "So many things can happen. You can get a sloppy racetrack. Your best horse can get boxed in. So there's a multitude of opportunities to lose."

So, it's better to have a multitude of horses who all have an opportunity to win.

Say hello (again) to the one and only Todd Pletcher.

"We've got a chance," the trainer admitted Saturday.

More like chances, in the best plural form possible.

Heading into Saturday's final duo of big Kentucky Derby prep races — if you don't count next Saturday's "wild card" Lexington Stakes — Pletcher already had a near embarrassment of racing riches.

He trains Wood Memorial winner Verrazano and Louisiana Derby winner Revolutionary, both pointed to Churchill Downs for the historic Run for the Roses.

Then, before 37,161 patrons at sunny Keeneland on Saturday, the Pletcher-trained Palace Malice ran a strong second, and the Pletcher-trained Charming Kitten ran an impressive third in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes.

Roughly an hour later, out at Oaklawn Park, the Pletcher-trained Overanalyze captured the Grade I Arkansas Derby to cement his spot in the expected 20-horse field.

That's right — come May 4, Pletcher should have at least four horses in the Churchill starting gate.

(Charming Kitten is currently 23rd on the Derby's "Leaderboard" points system.)

"You can only have one that can do it," Pletcher said after the Blue Grass, "but we love to take the chances when we get them."

That doesn't mean that Pletcher, who won the 2010 Kentucky Derby with Super Saver, will saddle the Derby favorite.

That distinction most likely will go to Florida Derby winner Orb, trained by Lexington native Shug McGaughey and owned by Stuart Janney III in partnership with the Phipps Stable.

Nor will Pletcher be the only trainer expected to start more than one horse.

Four-time Derby-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas, 77 years young and still kicking, could have a pair of entrants with Rebel Stakes winner Will Take Charge and Oxbow.

Three-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert could have a pair of Derby entrants with Sunland Derby winner Govenor Charlie and Super Ninety Nine. His Den's Legacy is on the bubble.

It is Pletcher, a four-time Eclipse Award winner for top trainer, who will certainly have Orb surrounded, however, which is nothing new where he's concerned.

Pletcher entered five in the 2007 Kentucky Derby, though just one hit the board. He entered four in the 2010 edition, when he finally broke through to capture his one Derby victory to this point.

He was expected to have the Derby favorite in 2011 before scratching Uncle Mo the day before the Derby because of illness.

Pletcher had suffered a similar fate the year before when he was forced to pull probable favorite Eskendereya the week before the race.

So how does he feel about his group this time?

"Very good. Very good," said the trainer. "This is kind of where we were hoping we would be April 13. That's all you can hope for. We need them just to stay healthy from here."

McPeek would agree, especially since he too should be taking multiple horses to Churchill, thanks to his special Saturday.

After Java's War hit the line first over the Polytrack at Keeneland, his Frac Daddy finished second in the Arkansas Derby.

"We're in it," McPeek said after the win by Java's War. "As long as he's healthy coming out of this, that's nine-tenths of our battle. It's pretty easy from here. He's got two races under his belt, and usually for us as a stable the third race is the best race."

Only one horse running his best race can win the Derby.

It doesn't hurt, however, to have more than one shot.

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