Horse Racing

Kentucky Derby full of intrigue with Pletcher's pack, O'Neill's return

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas fields questions from the media after Monday's morning exercise session in preparation for the 139th Kentucky Derby on Saturday.

Last year's chase for the Triple Crown ended when trainer Doug O'Neill stepped to a microphone stand in a patch of fenced-in grass next to a barn near the Belmont Park track.

Brushing back tears, he announced that a tendon injury would prevent I'll Have Another — the 12th horse to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown since Affirmed last completed the trifecta in 1978 — from going to post the next day.


On Saturday, a full field of 20 is expected for the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby and to begin the quest anew. There is no heavy favorite at this point. A diverse group emerged from the first "Road to the Kentucky Derby" series, which assigned point values to most of the traditional prep races. One of them will become a national star as he strives to join the likes of Secretariat and War Admiral in the ranks of thoroughbred lore.

For a generation of sports fans, though, the moments that resonate from horse racing's annual turn in the national spotlight revolve around how horses have failed to win the three races spread over six weeks in May and June.


Who could forget heavy favorite Barbaro pulling up before making it to the first turn of the Preakness in 2006?

Fans may recall Smarty Jones fading in the Belmont, or Big Brown being pulled to a stop in that final race when his jockey decided the colt had nothing to give.

With each passing year, the feat seems more out of reach — making the stories of those striving for it all the more interesting.

Here are five storylines to watch in the week leading up to Saturday's Kentucky Derby

Pletcher's plethora

As Todd Pletcher rose to prominence in the 2000s, his record had one hole: he'd had 24 starters in the Kentucky Derby but no winners.

Super Saver finally took the roses in 2010, and Pletcher's racing empire has only expanded since then. His horses have already run more than 250 times this year, winning nearly $8 million.

Six of them have amassed enough points to warrant consideration for the Kentucky Derby — the bottom of the field is still shaking out — meaning he could have more than a quarter of the field.


Revolutionary won the Louisiana Derby and will be ridden by Calvin Borel, who also guided Super Saver. Borel has won the Kentucky Derby three times.

Verrazano is unbeaten in four starts this year after not racing as a 2-year-old and won the Wood.

Overanalyze, the Arkansas Derby winner, ran in five races as a 2-year-old, four of them stakes.

They've taken different paths, but all of the colts have been guided by the man who pushed the idea of trainer-as-CEO to new levels. Pletcher oversees hundreds of horses, but now he must focus his energy on preparing individualized training approaches and race plans.

Pletcher had five horses in the 2007 Derby, and none hit the board.

Lukas is back


Pletcher's mentor, D. Wayne Lukas, also has two serious competitors in the race. Will Take Charge will be fresh, having rested seven weeks since winning the Grade II Rebel Stakes. Oxbow hasn't won a race since January but put together enough on-the-board finishes to qualify.

Lukas, 77, could become the oldest trainer ever to win a Triple Crown race, and he would also take the lead among trainers in Triple Crown wins with 14. He constantly pushes off talk of retirement and will spend the week atop his pony, watching workouts and sharing one-liners with the gathered crowds.

"I like how my horses are doing. Whether they are good enough remains to be seen," Lukas said. "Over the years, you get a feel about them, and I am very comfortable with them now."

O'Neill seeks repeat

O'Neill burst onto the Triple Crown scene last year with an unheralded colt and a no-name jockey. His large travel entourage rented homes in Baltimore and Long Island and spent afternoons visiting hospitals and sight-seeing. The self-deprecating trainer told stories of skipping school to bet the ponies before trying his hand on the backstretch, and he embraced the spotlight despite questions about doping in his past.

Hours after making the announcement that I'll Have Another and rider Mario Gutierrez would not have a chance to become the 12th Triple Crown winner, he vowed to a small circle of reporters that he would be back.


Like last year, he brings the Santa Anita Derby champion to Churchill Downs. Goldencents — partially owned by Rick Pitino, head coach of the national champion Louisville men's basketball team — pulled away for a convincing win in the West Coast's premier prep race.

Healing racing's image

O'Neill's success last year brought with it renewed scrutiny of the sport, as he ended up serving a 45-day suspension after the Triple Crown races because one of his horses had tested for high levels of total carbon dioxide in 2010.

This year, racing officials in Kentucky introduced more stringent monitoring procedures for Derby horses, including video surveillance. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission also took the unusual step of imposing special rules on up-and-coming trainer Rudy Rodriguez, whose horse Vyjack won the Gotham Stakes and is scheduled to run in the Derby.

The former jockey has become one of the most controversial conditioners in New York, with three positive drug tests in the last year. A former assistant for Rick Dutrow — the Big Brown trainer currently serving a 10-year suspension for multiple drug infractions — Rodriguez was forced to appear before Kentucky's commission to fight for his license.

Meanwhile, officials in California and Maryland have investigated high fatality rates at tracks in those states and are taking measures to ensure horse safety.


The Derby also arrives as eight Mid-Atlantic states begin working to implement a uniform drug policy that supporters believe could pave the way for nationwide rules governing how and when horses can be treated. Trainers have pushed for more conformity between states.

"We're in a climate now where we have to do everything we can to make it clear that the game is clean," said Graham Motion, who trains 2011 Kentucky Derby champion Animal Kingdom. "These are positive steps."

Breaking through

Fifteen of the first 28 jockeys to win the Kentucky Derby were black.

By 1922, none of the jockeys riding in the Derby were black, and there wouldn't be another until 2000.

Kevin Krigger, the 29-year-old jockey for Goldencents, can recite these facts now. He knows that he and Victor Lebron, a fellow native of the U.S. Virgin Islands who will ride Frac Daddy, are fighting to become the first black jockey to win the Derby since 1902.


Rosie Napravnik, meanwhile, will get a second chance to become the first woman to win the Kentucky Derby. Napravnik became the first woman to win the Kentucky Oaks last year.

Napravnik rode 2-year-old champion Shanghai Bobby last year before the Pletcher trainee struggled earlier this year and was diagnosed with a stress fracture and ruled out of the Derby.

It didn't take long for her to find a ride, as she'll be aboard Louisiana Derby runner-up Mylute.

Derby day


When: Saturday

Post time: About 6:20 p.m.

Where: Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.

TV: NBC, beginning at 4 p.m.

Last year's winner: I'll Have Another