Trainers say more horses running in the Kentucky Derby doesn’t give them any strategic advantage
Trainer Todd Pletcher has a familiar problem in Saturday’s running of the Kentucky Derby. Which horse does he watch in the race?
Everyone should have such problems.
This will be the sixth time that Pletcher has started at least four horses in the Derby. Intuitively, you would think that would give him — and Bob Baffert and Dale Romans, who each have two horses — a tactical advantage with more than one game plan.
But the trainers insist that doesn’t matter.
“We have a game plan for those, but when the gates open, those game plans change,” Pletcher said about his quartet of horses — Audible, Magnum Moon, Noble Indy and Vino Rosso. “I’m confident we have four top-class riders that are all capable of making good decisions when the gates do open.
“You can know what you plan to do, but you don’t know what everyone else plans to do. Sometimes the race shape that you see, some of your opponents don’t see it the same way and don’t apply the tactics you expect them to.”
Romans, who has Promises Fulfilled and Free Drop Billy in the race, agreed.
“I don’t think so,” Romans said of having an edge with more starting horses. “It’s just double the stress. There is an advantage in that you double your chances of winning, but as far as strategy, no advantage.”
Baffert, who has favorite Justify and Solomini in the race, echoed his colleagues — but with one qualification.
“None, absolutely none … unless you’re Todd Pletcher,” Baffert said with a laugh.
Actually, in the 18 times Pletcher has had horses run in the Derby, he had multiple starters in 16 of those years. Yet he has only two Kentucky Derby wins: Super Saver in 2010, when he had four starters, and last year with Always Dreaming, when he had three.
“Actually, I find it way more simple in a situation like this than it can be in a maiden race where there are other options for each horse,” Pletcher said. “I think in this case, everyone understands you have four horses that qualified for the Derby, and everyone is going to take their chance. Each one is going to compete on their own and try and win the race on their own.”
The comingling of interests also goes well beyond the trainers. The sport is moving more toward ownership groups with multiple names attached to multiple horses.
The China Horse Club has two horses in the race, Justify and Audible. It qualified three, but it was decided that the turnaround from the Arkansas Derby was too fast for Quip and he is being held for the Preakness. WinStar Farm is a partner with China Horse Club in Audible and Quip and is part-owner of Noble Indy. WinStar also has an interest in Bolt d’Oro as the colt’s breeder.
Repole Stable is the other owner of Noble Indy and also has an interest in Vino Rosso with St. Elias Stable, which was an ownership partner of Always Dreaming.
It’s all a series of intertwining family trees.
“It’s a good thing,” Romans said. “The sport of kings has become the sport of partnerships. It gives the second-tier players enough money to compete with Sheikh Mohammed [bin Rashid Al Maktoum].”
The partnerships also are changing the way horses are bought. Baffert and most major players in the industry were in Ocala, Fla., last week for the annual 2-year-olds-in-training sale.
“It’s actually pretty tough to buy horses,” Baffert said of the Ocala sale. “Everybody lands on the same horses. They are bringing a lot of money for some reason. If you have a horse that’s just sort of average, they won’t even touch it. They won’t even look at it.
“They want a good horse, but they want it now. They want it today. They don’t want to breed and take their time. The game is changing in that way.”
Those are the horses that every buyer hopes will land at Churchill Downs in a year.
For now, though, Pletcher has to figure out how to keep tabs on all his horses once the race starts.
“It’s a little more complicated watching it,” Pletcher said. “The Derby is a hard race to watch, period. When you have more than one horse in there, it makes it that much harder.”
Again, a good problem to have.