— Todd Pletcher is a serious man. He does not smile, or joke, easily.
But Pletcher did flash a tiny grin earlier this week when asked if he had any Kentucky Derby routines or superstitions. Did he have a restaurant he frequented or a routine he stuck to?
"I haven't found anything that works, so I've got to keep changing every year," Pletcher said. "Maybe if I find something that works, I'll have to keep doing it."
It was Pletcher's way of addressing the obvious: Despite the fact that he's arguably the best thoroughbred trainer in the sport right now, and one of the hardest workers in the game, he can't seem to shake the label as the man who can't win the Derby. Twenty four times he's brought a horse to Churchill Downs and entered it in the Run for the Roses, and 24 times he's come up empty, the most failed attempts in the history of the race.
With each year, and each miss, the questions seem to intensify. This year, Daily Racing Form decided to have a little fun with the storyline, putting a cartoon version of the 43-year-old trainer on the cover of its Derby preview, depicting Pletcher climbing a thorn-covered rose with garden shears in his hand, the flower just out of reach.
"I've heard it so much that honestly it doesn't even phase me," Pletcher said. "I like to I think I've done a pretty good job of laughing it off."
Pletcher has four chances today with Devil May Care, Super Saver, Mission Impazible and Discreetly Mine. Two weeks ago, he looked like he'd enter the race with the clear favorite in Eskendereya, but the colt was scratched on Sunday with swelling in his lower leg, and injury that made it a wide open field once again.
"It's something that we haven't achieved and something we're going to keep trying for," Pletcher said. "If we're fortunate enough to win it, I don't think I'd feel any different. Honestly, if we win on Saturday, I don't think I'd be a better trainer than I am today. Maybe we just show up with the right horse."
Having the right horse on the right day might be more important than having the most talented horse this year. Today's weather forecast is calling for nearly two inches of rain in the morning with scattered thunderstorms throughout the afternoon, and muddy track means virtually anyone could end up in the winner's circle.
Lookin At Lucky (3-1) and Sidney's Candy (5-1) inherited the label of the next best horses when Eskendereya was scratched, but their hopes took a serious blow when they drew the two least favorable post positions, No. 1 and No. 20. That puts a lot of pressure on their jockeys, Garret Gomez on Lookin At Lucky and Joe Talemo on Sidney's Candy, to negotiate traffic and know when to go for it.
"Garrett is going to have to make that call," said Bob Baffert, who is trying to win his fourth Derby. "He's a big-time rider. It's like if you're a big-time quarterback, you have to make big plays in the right moments. You can't worry about that. It's up to me to deliver the horse to him, then it's up to him to deliver for us."
If recent history is an indication, its a folly to play the morning-line favorite anyway. Only four times in the last 15 years has the Derby favorite won the race. That could open up the race for a horse that has flown under the radar this week, like Super Saver (15-1), Dublin (12-1) or Awesome Act (10-1).
"There's something about the Kentucky Derby that makes it an extraordinarily difficult race to win for so many reasons," said Jeremy Noseda, trainer of Awesome Act, who lives in England and is running his first horse in the Derby. "I genuinely believe that in the Epsom Derby [England's biggest race], you know if you've got the best horse, you'll go and win the race. I don't know whether that really applies to the Kentucky Derby. That's not to run the race down, but it's such a unique event that I think there are so many other issues that come in to play. I think that's one of the reasons that it's so special, because it's an extraordinarily tough thing to do."
There are speed horses in the field that should set the pace like Baffert's other horse, Conveyance, or Line of David and American Lion, but only 22 horses have won the Derby when leading wire-to-wire. A fast start could set the stage for a closer like Ice Box (10-1), who stormed from behind to win the Florida Derby six weeks ago.
Ice Box's trainer, Nick Zito, who won the Derby with Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go For Gin in 1994, doesn't think the bad weather would favor his horse.
"Speed will carry in the slop," Zito said. "It always does. You saw what happened in Go for Gin's year. There was a lot of speed, but Holy Bull didn't break, and that was it."
Some horse is going to get a good trip, and it might just be Devil May Care (10-1), who would be just the fourth filly to win the Derby in its history.
"It would mean a lot, especially for me and Todd because been together for more than 10 years now," said jockey John Velasquez. "We haven't been able to win the Derby, but we've been very successful in other events. Imagine if we did it with a filly? Wow."
But Pletcher said he doesn't believe he's been struck by bad luck at the Derby. In fact, he thinks the idea of luck is overrated in racing.
"With the size of the field, you've got to get lucky, but generally horses make their own luck," Pletcher said. "The good ones find a way.
To me, the luck is more about which year you fall in. If you have a speed horse in a year when there is no speed, it's a big advantage.
But this year if you have a speed horse, it's going to be tougher.
Those things, to me, are lucky. But during the actual running of the race, generally the best horse can overcome some difficulty."
Will this finally be Pletcher's year? If not, he'll likely be back next year, trying new restaurants, laughing off the criticism, and at the barn well before dawn, trying to find something that works.