Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Daily Kentucky Derby Hype Meme: Todd Pletcher Can't Win the Kentucky Derby

By any measure, the top trainer of the past decade was Todd Pletcher. In the period from 2000 to 2009, he won the Eclipse Award for best trainer four times (2004 - 2007), won 70 Grade 1 races, including 3 Breeders Cup races, was the leading trainer at Saratoga 5 times, and trained eight horses that won Eclipse Awards. He has big won with sprinters (Trippi, Speightstown), young colts (Proud Accolade, More Than Ready), young fillies (Marylebone), 3yo colts (Flower Alley, Any Given Saturday, Bluegrass Cat), 3yo fillies (Rags to Riches, Ashado, Panty Raid), older males (Left Bank, Lawyer Ron), older females (Ashado once again, Fleet Indian), turf males (English Channel, Red Giant), and turf females (Wait a While, Honey Ryder). A whopping eight of those horses have won Eclipse Awards. And despite all that success, there's only one thing you'll hear over and over again in the next few weeks:

Todd Pletcher can't win the Kentucky Derby.

This meme is going to be one of the big stories this year because Pletcher comes into this year's Derby armed with at least five entrants including the huge favorite, Eskendereya, intriguing price players Super Saver and Mission Impazible, and pace factors Rule and Discreetly Mine. It would be great if you could eliminate 25% of the horses simply because Todd Pletcher trains them. There are three enormous problems with this meme, however.

Problem #1: Pletcher hasn't had a horse yet that should have won the Kentucky Derby.

Steve Crist masterfully discussed this in his blog (side note: we had written about 2/3 of this post when his went up), but Todd Pletcher's 0-for-24 mark--which is really 0-for-9, because the 24 horses have run in 9 Derbies--is mostly because he's run rank longshots. Let's go a step beyond Mr. Crist and look a little more closely at the 24 entrants that he's had so far.

  • Impeachment (3rd, 6-1, part of an entry). Would have been 30-1 had he not been part of the entry, and fit the bill perfectly of a clunk-up closer. Not a bad showing.
  • More Than Ready (4th, 11-1). The prior year's 2yo sensation, he never had the breeding to go 10 furlongs
  • Trippi (11th, 6-1, part of an entry). A crackerjack sprinter that would go on to have a nice career at races under a mile. This was apparent from Day One, but the owners wanted to run him anyway.
  • Graeme Hall (19th, 46-1). This front-runner shocked the Arkansas Derby at 17-1 and was rightly ignored as a front-runner in the Derby.
  • Invisible Ink (2nd, 55-1). A personal favorite, because I picked the winner of this Derby (Monarchos) and this guy at overlaid odds. He lacked a stakes win coming in and was a decent enough horse, but he ran in the same Derby as Monarchos, Point Given, and Congaree. He deserved to be a price and outran his odds.
  • Balto Star (14th, 8-1). A front runner with sprinter's speed in a race with a series of intractable frontrunners (Millenium Wind, Songandaprayer, Keats). His odds were wrong, plain and simple. This guy never had a shot.
  • Wild Horses (18th, 58-1). Pure vanity entry by the owner. Can't hold it against Pletcher.
  • Limehouse (4th, 41-1). This Derby's a bit of a tough one to rate because of the thunderstorm about 40 minutes before the race that made it a pea soup. Still, this guy won graded stakes races as a 2, 3 and 4 year old and clunked up to complete the superfecta behind two better horses (Smarty Jones & Lion Heart) and a fair closer (Imperialism). Not a bad job here by Todd.
  • Pollard's Vision (17th, 24-1). Upset winner of the Illinois Derby had nothing in the Kentucky Derby. With Graeme Hall and Balto Star, he's the 3rd horse who was an upset winner in a prep race that did nothing in the Derby.
  • Flower Alley (9th, 41-1). Make that four horses: he won the Lane's End. He actually turned into a good horse, winning the Travers and Jim Dandy later that year and finishing 2nd in the Breeders Cup Classic.
  • Coin Silver (12th, 38-1). And here's #5: the upset winner of the Lexington.
  • Bandini (19th, 7-1). Arguably the best horse Pletcher has run in the Derby. Nobody knows why he ran next to last in a race where the exacta was comprised of Giacomo (50-1) and Closing Argument (71-1). He was never the same after the Derby.
  • Bluegrass Cat (2nd, 30-1). Many people liked this horse, and he rewarded them with a fat mutuel behind Barbaro. Won the Haskell later that year.
  • Keyed Entry (20th, 29-1). A rank sprinter, nobody's quite sure why this horse was entered. I'll blame the owners.
  • Circular Quay (6th, 11-1). We picked this guy to run seventh, so nice job, Todd.
  • Any Given Saturday (8th, 13-1). We liked this guy in 2007, and he won the Haskell later that year. He for whatever reason wasn't ready on Derby Day.
  • Sam P. (9th, 43-1). A longshot when he entered the race, he only won 3 of 26 races in his career.
  • Scat Daddy (18th, 7-1). Wildly overbet given his breeding and lack of fast races. Yeah he was 7-1, but few handicappers liked him.
  • Cowtown Cat (20th, 20-1). #6 on the list of upset prep winners that Pletcher ran in the Derby and flopped.
  • Cowboy Cal (9th, 39-1). Turf horse that ran 2nd in the Blue Grass only because it was on synthetic. I think this was his last race on dirt.
  • Monba (20th, 31-1). Upset Prep Winner #7.
  • Join in the Dance (7th, 51-1). Pure pacesetter for Pletcher's other horses, who held on for 7th in the mud.
  • Dunkirk (11th, 5-1). A fairly polarizing horse going into the race; many didn't like him because of the Curse of Apollo, but because Quality Road and I Want Revenge didn't make it into the gate, he was thrust into 2nd choice status. Backed up his support with a good 2nd in the Belmont next out, but was overbet here.
  • Advice (13th, 49-1). Upset Prep Winner #8, he won the Lexington two weeks prior.
So breaking that down, eight of the horses entered were thrown to the wolves solely because they won their prep races against all odds (which speaks to Pletcher's training ability). On top of that, we have the usual vanity entries and no-hopers that probably weren't his call. In short, Pletcher's really being crucified because four horses didn't win the Derby: Bandini, Scat Daddy, Any Given Saturday and Dunkirk. We can't make excuses for him, but when you shrink it to 0-for-4 with a chance, suddenly it doesn't look so bad.

Problem #2: We've done and disproven this meme before.

Up until June 2007, the meme wasn't "Pletcher can't win the Derby", it's "Pletcher can't win Triple Crown races." Then what happened? Rags to Riches won the Belmont, being the first filly to win the race in a century. Monkey off his back, right? Nope, now the media's just moved the goalposts.

Additionally, we've seen the media do this with other top trainers. D. Wayne Lukas was crucified for years for being unable to win a Triple Crown race; he then won 13. Shug McGaughey was ridiculed for not being able to win a Triple Crown race; Easy Goer took care of that in 1989. Bobby Frankel was attacked for not winning a Triple Crown or Breeders Cup race; he won the 2003 Belmont when he got Empire Maker, the best horse he ever trained. Which brings us to...

Problem #3: This has nothing to do with this year's Derby.

Once McGaughey and Lukas got their best horses, they won the big race with them. And Pletcher has by far his best Derby prospect ever this year in Eskendereya. He's perfectly bred for the distance. He's the fastest horse. He's prepped well and is training well. He has a top jockey. And he has good ratable speed. This doesn't mean he can't lose--Point Given and Empire Maker had similar credentials and lost. But it does mean that this is Pletcher's best shot and really, probably only the 4th or 5th horse he's run in the Derby that could be expected to finish in the money. If Eskendereya loses, it won't be because Todd Pletcher was his trainer; it will be because someone was better on May 1st or he just had a bad day.

So how do we rank this meme? The trainer's competency is race-related, but the issue and conclusion are being handled poorly. We'll give this a solid 5, because we know the media can and will do much worse.


MarkItZero said...

When I wake up from 10 sleeps, it will be Derby day. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Keep the Derby stuff coming, I enjoy it.

Eddie D. said...

I addressed this issue a week ago.

El Angelo said...

I hadn't seen your piece before--very nicely done.