Kentucky Derby

Derby Watch: Pletcher contenders arrive early to prepare for 'X-factor'

Trainer Todd Pletcher watched from the side of the track at Churchill Downs during a morning workout last year. Pletcher's five Derby contenders are already in Louisville for this year's race.
Trainer Todd Pletcher watched from the side of the track at Churchill Downs during a morning workout last year. Pletcher's five Derby contenders are already in Louisville for this year's race. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Technically, there are still points to be gained toward a potential berth in the Kentucky Derby with Saturday's Grade III Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on tap and next week's Derby Trial being the ultimate last-ditch spot on the agenda.

However, the core lineup for the first Saturday in May is all but set barring injury or illness. And unlike recent years, a majority of the contenders aren't wasting any time getting what has been deemed crucial time over the Churchill Downs surface.

As of Friday morning, more than half of the top 20 horses, including all five contenders from the barn of Todd Pletcher, were on the grounds in Louisville with Gotham Stakes winner Vyjack among those slated to ship in this weekend.

Recent years have seen many connections wait until a week out or less to invade Churchill, with Pletcher in particular among those who preferred a later date for his contingent's arrival. Interestingly, Pletcher has been among the more vocal in deeming the Churchill dirt the "X-factor" on Derby Day.

"To me, the one thing that I think goes overlooked a lot is this huge, huge influence on the outcome of the Kentucky Derby is the racing surface at Churchill," Pletcher said in February. "It can be so peculiar. Sometimes it doesn't matter how good you are or how well-prepared you are."

It must be noted that Pletcher's lone Derby winner, Super Saver in 2010, was one of his few contenders over the years who have shipped in to Louisville early and also had prior form at Churchill, having won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes the previous November.

None of Pletcher's current five contenders has raced at Churchill, a factor that possibly contributed to their early appearance there this season.

It remains to be seen if this year's spate of early arrivals becomes a trend or a one-off happening. While preparation certainly doesn't guarantee results come the big day, it seems — at least for this season — that taking the potential variable off the table has become a focal point for several connections.

The Derby Dozen

1. Orb: Again, not much to pick apart about the son of Malibu Moon. If they go quick early, he can sit farther back. If they're walking up front, he can get involved earlier. Keeps knocking over his Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey with his progress and who wouldn't want to see the McGaughey/Phipps family/Stuart Janney get their first Derby wins?

2. Revolutionary: The announcement earlier this week that Calvin Borel will have the mount for the Derby moves Revolutionary up a notch as the colt already runs with a style that is in Borel's wheelhouse. Along with the rest of the Pletcher crew, he is slated to have his first work over the Churchill surface this Sunday. For the record, the last loss Revolutionary suffered in a race? That would be to Orb, who won a one-mile allowance race over the son of War Pass at Aqueduct on Nov. 24.

3. Verrazano: For all the talk over his not racing as a juvenile, the son of More Than Ready has racked up seasoning in winning four starts over three different tracks this year. Has the distance questions in his pedigree but remember that many wondered the same about Big Brown and Smarty Jones, and we know how that turned out.

4. Itsmyluckyday: Put in a strong one-mile work at Calder Race Course on Thursday, covering the distance in 1:43.20. Is going to be overlooked in the wake of his Florida Derby defeat but he has the tactical ability necessary to put him right in the mix.

5. Goldencents: Operation: Relax continues to be the goal of this colt's workouts as was the case when he covered 4 furlongs in :48.40 at Santa Anita on Wednesday. He and Verrazano stand as the most obvious potential speed but will be interesting to see which Goldencents shows up in the 20-horse melee — the one who got rank and faded when Flashback came to him early in the San Felipe or the one who relaxed and let Super Ninety Nine do the dirty work in the Santa Anita Derby.

6. Overanalyze: Was ready to close the door on him after the Gotham Stakes but his Grade I Arkansas Derby triumph proved his redemption. On the upside, love the level of improvement he showed since his season debut and the powerful way he distanced himself from his challengers in the lane. Downside is the final time of 1:51.94 was slow, quite slow, and the field he beat unremarkable. Also has the same pattern Will Take Charge does of following each of his wins with losses next time out.

7. Normandy Invasion: Has got "Wise Guy" horse written all over him after his runner-up Wood Memorial outing. He finished like a shot that day despite the slow pace but fact remains, he only has a maiden win to his credit. Be wary of falling in love with horses who have yet to actually get the job done.

8. Vyjack: Worked at Fair Hill Friday, covering 4 furlongs in :51.60 in his first move since running third in the Wood Memorial. Have to wonder about the slight lung infection he was found to have after the Wood as this is not the time to have setbacks, no matter how minor.

9. Will Take Charge: Assuming illness or injury doesn't keep him from the starting gate, strapping chestnut will put his multiple Grade I-winning dam Take Charge Lady in the history books for having offspring in the Kentucky Derby back-to-back years, having already produced 2012 Derby starter Take Charge Indy. Can be awfully impressive looking when he wants to be, but his consistency issues are well documented. There is also the matter that he ran the worst race of his life over the Churchill track, finishing 13th in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last November.

10. Black Onyx: Breezed 5 furlongs in 1:00.60 at Churchill Downs last Saturday morning in his first major training move since his victory in the Grade III Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park on March 23. Son of Rock Hard Ten had trainer Kelly Breen beaming after the move as he broke off two lengths behind a set and finished a half-length in front at the wire. "When he switched leads at the three-eighths pole he put a move on them pretty nicely," said jockey Joe Bravo after the move. "I think he loved the racetrack. He handled the surface nice and the gallop out was great."

11. Java's War: Tipped his hand when he ran second to Verrazano in the Tampa Bay Derby in what was his first start since November. Have to respect that big closing kick of his but he can't get away with spotting the field that many lengths out of the gate against the talent he will face on Derby Day.

12. Palace Malice: Got himself into the Derby with his runner-up finish in the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes last Saturday. Kentucky Derby will be his third start in five weeks with a hard run at Keeneland and troubled outing at Fair Grounds in the Louisiana Derby weighing on him. Have to wonder how much more he has left in him right now.

The next eight

Mylute, Oxbow, Govenor Charlie, Charming Kitten, Frac Daddy, Falling Sky, West Hills Giant, Lines of Battle

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