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Like the sun rising in the East, Todd Pletcher is back with four Kentucky Derby contenders

Every spring, we ask the same question. We take it for granted, really.

How many horses will Pletcher have in the Derby?

We don’t even have to specify that the Pletcher is Todd or that the Derby is in Kentucky. It’s just a given that the biggest money-winning trainer in history ($358.9 million and counting) will put more contenders in the sport’s most targeted race than anyone else.

“I think he’s spoiled us,” NBC analyst and Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey said.

Many trainers spend their whole careers fantasizing about even one Derby entrant. Pletcher has failed to put a contender in the race just once since 2000 and has saddled three or more 10 times, four or more an astonishing six times.

“If I had to compare him to an athlete, I’d compare him to LeBron James,” said owner Mike Repole, who puts his best horses with Pletcher, including 2018 Derby contenders Vino Rosso and Noble Indy. “LeBron has three championships, but he’s lost five, so I think sometimes we forget how important it is, how great it is, to be in the eight championships. To get four horses in the Derby numerous times … that’s amazing.”

Even by his usual standard, Pletcher has outdone himself in 2018. There are seven major prep races for the Derby, each worth 100 qualifying points and guaranteed entry to the 20-horse field at Churchill Downs. Pletcher-trained horses won four of them.

That quartet — Magnum Moon, Audible, Vino Rosso and Noble Indy — has won a combined $3.16 million, meaning Pletcher has put together a terrific spring regardless of what happens in Saturday’s 144th running of the Derby.

As usual, he acknowledged the achievements with a flat tone and a nod to the fact disappointment could lurk around the corner.

“Last year, we said it was a successful spring until the Preakness, right?” Pletcher said, alluding to Always Dreaming’s victory in the 2017 Derby and subsequent struggles. “That’s just the nature of the business.”

For years, Pletcher was portrayed as the trainer who couldn’t win the big one — the Bobby Cox to Bob Baffert’s Joe Torre.

Starting with his maiden Derby in 2000, his first 24 entries failed to win before Super Saver ended that streak in 2010. He entered last year 1-for-45 before Always Dreaming gave him a second Derby win and a healthy dose of Kentucky vindication.

But Pletcher’s many admirers argue that he’s almost a victim of his own artistry. His winning percentage is low, they say, because he’s so prolific at getting horses — even unremarkable ones — to the first Saturday in May.

“He’s one-for-one with favorites,” Bailey said. “A lot of those 48 he got here, that was great in and of itself. Odds-wise, they didn’t figure to win.”

Asked to explain Pletcher’s consistency, Bailey noted that he’d ridden with the trainer to Churchill Downs on Wednesday morning. The departure time? Try 4:15 a.m.

“Todd’s amazing at getting horses here,” said Elliott Walden, president and CEO of WinStar Farm, which owns pieces of Audible and Noble Indy. “A few years ago, he was getting a bad rap about his percentages, but this is a hard race to win. Anytime you’re a favorite in most races, you expect to win. This race, you can’t expect to win. There’s just too many variables.”

In his days as a trainer, Walden guided two Derby runners-up, Victory Gallop in 1998 and Menifee in 1999. But he has joked that the smartest thing WinStar owner Kenny Troutt ever did was replace him with Pletcher as the farm’s go-to trainer.

“It’s two things,” Walden said in explaining his friend’s success. “One is work ethic. You can call him at 4:30 in the morning and he’s at the barn, seven days a week. I can’t name too many people who work as hard as Todd Pletcher does. And two is organization. He’s a CEO-minded person. Everything is very organized, methodical, nonemotional.”

As Pletcher describes it, the multidirectional road to the Derby is not exactly quantum physics. He simply comes up with sensible plans for each horse and, with the help of his trusted lieutenants, leaves no stone unturned in bringing them all to fruition.

For example, Magnum Moon, an undefeated 6-1 choice in the morning line, was a May foal and didn’t run his first race until Jan. 13 of this year. So it made sense to point him toward the Arkansas Derby, the latest of the major prep races.

For Audible, the tough competition in Florida was always the destination, much like Always Dreaming the previous winter.

With Vino Rosso, Pletcher urged Repole and co-owner Vinnie Viola to be patient after a pair of humdrum results from early prep races at Tampa Bay Downs. Look at the way he works in the morning and the power with which he gallops out at the end of races, he told them. Sure enough, Vino Rosso blossomed in the Wood Memorial, showing the stamina he’d need for the 1 1/4-mile distance of the Derby.

“The great thing about the winter and spring is there’s prep races pretty much every weekend,” Pletcher said. “Whether it’s at Gulfstream or Tampa or Oaklawn or Fairgrounds or New York, you’ve got a lot of options.”

With an operation set up to work effectively at three tracks simultaneously — a big-picture approach he learned from his mentor, D. Wayne Lukas — Pletcher plays the entire map better than anyone else.

But so many things can go wrong with each horse — a nagging injury here, a poor reaction to a track surface there, an inability to handle the frantic atmosphere around a big race. Pletcher confronts these eventualities every year and still delivers multiple contenders to the Derby the way other people mow the lawn.

Sure, he benefits from the deep stock of expensive, talented horses that enter his operation every year. But there’s a reason successful owners trust him with their most prized assets.

“In sports, he’s Bill Belichick, he’s Gregg Popovich, he’s Nick Saban,” Repole said. “Why do they keep winning at a high level? It might be Tom Brady, but then [the Patriots] have got different running backs and different receivers and different defensive players every year. The common denominator for Todd, maybe he’s got great owners, but it’s different horses every year so it’s a remarkable feat that I don’t think people pay enough attention to.”

Those who work closely with Pletcher say he’s the rare person who never loses interest in what he’s doing, regardless of how many times he’s won the same race or how many career records he’s toppled at age 50. If that leads to jokes about how he’s a robot, well, they’re delivered with respect and affection.

“It really is uncanny,” said Viola, who co-owned Always Dreaming and now co-owns Vino Rosso with Repole. “I don’t think the sport really has come up with the appropriate explanation for his excellence and dominance. He’s been around these equine athletes his whole life. He’s experienced every part of the game you can. But he’s relentless with his meticulous approach, his consistency. He never loses that fire. That I think is his secret.”

Baffert offered a sly grin when asked about his greatest rival. He said Pletcher’s success flows entirely from his time at the University of Arizona, which also happens to be Baffert’s alma mater.

Turning more serious, he said: “What we have in common is we started with one client and one horse, and the reason we’ve been successful — you have to produce. You have to produce in this game. He works hard at it. It’s seven days a week, and you have to make a lot of sacrifices to be in this position.”

Balancing multiple horses and owners during Derby week has become second nature for Pletcher. But the one part he has not mastered is watching the race.

“It’s actually a little more complicated,” he said. “To get a real handle, I’ll have to go back and watch the replay a number of times, watch each horse individually.”

As with the questions about his winning percentage, it’s a problem he’s happy to have.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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