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Kentucky Derby notebook: Trainer Todd Pletcher poised for a first

Kentucky Derby notebook: Trainer Todd Pletcher poised for a first
Todd Pletcher the trainer of Always Dreaming, Patch and Tapwirit talks in the barn area during the morning training for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on April 30, 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Andy Lyons / Getty Images)

Is it possible that a man could win the Eclipse Award for Top Trainer seven times and still be underrated?

Colleagues say that might be the case for Todd Pletcher.

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With three starters in Saturday's Kentucky Derby, Pletcher will tie his mentor, D. Wayne Lukas, for the most in Derby history. And he's only 49.

As is his wont, Pletcher has downplayed the achievement, saying it would only be meaningful if he had as many Derby victories as Lukas' four.

Instead, Pletcher has one win — Super Saver in 2010 — and that's the bit of data critics use to pick at his legacy.

"The record is what it is," he said. "The Derby is the goal for many of our young horses. It will continue to be the goal. It's like a shooter in basketball. Just because they're not going in all the time, you don't stop shooting. The only way you're going to make a basket is to shoot."

Other trainers, however, say casual fans have no idea how difficult it is for Pletcher to steer multiple horses, many of them good but not great, to the Derby year after year. In both 2007 and 2013, he saddled five horses for the race. Many trainers spend whole careers dreaming of just one Derby entry.

"I know people talk a lot about his record in the Derby, but Todd does a really good job," said fellow trainer Graham Motion. "It's only a matter of time before he wins another one."

Pletcher often runs his 3-year-olds sparingly, but he's as good as anyone at putting them in the right races at the right times to qualify for the Derby.

He has one of the favorites in this year's race, Florida Derby champion Always Dreaming.

He has Tapwrit, who was regarded as another strong contender before a disappointing effort in the Blue Grass Stakes.

And he has fan favorite Patch, who lost his left eye last July after experiencing sudden swelling.

Pletcher being Pletcher, this isn't his first Derby horse who's blind in one eye. He also had Pollard's Vision in 2004.

Motion's other star: Among the horses Motion shipped from Maryland this week, Irish War Cry has understandably drawn most of the attention. But the Derby contender is arguably less accomplished than his barn mate, Miss Temple City, expected to run in the Churchill Downs Distaff Turf Mile on Saturday's Derby undercard. If nothing else, the 5-year-old mare towers above Irish War Cry at a muscular 1,200 pounds.

Miss Temple City won three Grade 1 stakes races last year, including two against male horses. Motion hopes to take her to Royal Ascot in England next month. She ran there in both 2015 and 2016.

Kentucky Oaks: Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert managed to have a decent Derby week after all. His filly, Abel Tasman, rallied from last to win the Kentucky Oaks in a chilly rain on Friday. Baffert has no horses in today's Derby after Mastery, a potential favorite, fractured his leg at the March 11 San Felipe Stakes. He has said he'll fly home to California and watch the race on television.

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But at least he'll leave with a third career victory in the $1-million Oaks, the annual showcase for 3-year-old fillies. Abel Tasman was sat dead last through the early portion of the race as favorite Paradise Woods jumped to the lead. But veteran jockey Mike Smith guided the Baffert-trained filly on a sustained charge and ultimately seized the lead from the outside.

It was just Baffert's second race training Abel Tasman after she was transferred to him from Simon Callaghan's barn in March.

But Smith said the trainer was excited by the filly's potential and added that it would be foolish for anyone to bet against him coming out of Derby week with a big win.

"That's Bob Baffert," Smith said. "Big-money Bob."

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