When it comes to talented 3-year-old colts, it’s Todd Pletcher’s world and those on the Kentucky Derby trail are living in it.
The five-time Eclipse-winning trainer’s stable is absolutely loaded with upwards to eight Derby hopefuls. This weekend marks the first leg of the new Kentucky Derby Championship Series as two races will provide the winners with 50 valuable Derby points. This leg of the series features eight races that will present the top four finishers with escalated point totals of 50-20-10-5.
Pletcher will send two of his barn’s colts to the gate this afternoon, with Violence running in the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream and Palace Malice starting at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans in the Risen Star Stakes.
Violence sits in the top five of most preliminary Derby lists and will be starting for the first time since winning the Grade 1 Cash Call Futurity at Hollywood Park in December, his third straight victory. Pletcher freshened him up after that race and now points him directly down the challenging Derby trail.
“We’re really pleased with the way the horse has trained. He came directly from Hollywood Park to Palm Meadows training facility right after he won the Cash Call. We decided that the Fountain of Youth was a good starting point for him,” said Pletcher.
“We’re excited about getting him started again. We feel like he is a colt that’s already proven that he’s very good. He’s adaptable to various pace scenarios; he’s won around two turns. We’re looking forward to getting him going.”
Pletcher is impressed with Violence’s abilities, winning three races over three different tracks, including one synthetic surface.
“I think it says a lot about his versatility, the fact that he’s won at three different tracks at three different distances. The horse has a terrific mindset and he is very unfazed about different surroundings. He shipped all the way to California in his 2-year old year and never turned a hair. I love that about him that he seems to be taking everything in stride and adaptable to any pace scenario,” said Pletcher.
Heading down to Louisiana will be Palace Malice, who comes off a second place finish over a sloppy track in a Gulfstream allowance last month.
Last summer he was pointed at the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga before encountering a shin issue that sidelined him.
“I thought he ran very well in his comeback race going 7 furlongs. Being a son of Curlin out of Royal Anthem mare, we feel like he’s always been one that should stretch out. The added distance is going to be in his favor. We are excited about getting him going in the Risen Star,” Pletcher said.
Besides the two horses running this weekend, Pletcher has what could be his finest crop of horses on the trail in recent memory.
While acknowledging the depth of his crop, he remains cautiously optimistic. His hesitation is mostly due to his past experience on the Derby trail, losing potential Derby favorites Eskendereya (2010) and Uncle Mo (2011) during the week of the Derby to injuries, keeping both of his top contenders out of the big race. Fast forward to 2013, he has more bullets in his holster than any other trainer on the trail.
At this stage it certainly seems like it is his best crop.
“You always want to keep your expectations and hopes in check, when you have quality 3-year-olds in the middle of February. We all know that things can go wrong between now and the First Saturday in May,” Pletcher said.
“I can’t recall having the depth to the stable that we have at the moment – not only to have the reigning 2-year-old champ, Shanghai Bobby, but several other ones that the expectations are just as high for. We’re excited about it but we’re also realistic and hopeful that we can continue to keep them healthy.”
One such horse that many are high on is a horse that has yet to earn a Derby point, Verrazano, who has been ultra-impressive in his two starts this year.
“He was ready to run in mid to late December and just the timing of it, there wasn’t a race available,” Pletcher said. “That’s why he got started on Jan. 1. He was most impressive in his debut and even more so in his one mile allowance win.”
Verrazano is pointed at the Tampa Bay Derby by Pletcher, a road that a certain Derby winner took in 2010.
“I picked the Tampa Derby because I liked the spacing and felt like March 9 was a race that could set him up for just about anything after that. It would leave the window open for the Florida Derby back in three weeks. It also would put him on a nice schedule for the Wood Memorial a month later or if we needed another week, we still have the Arkansas Derby,” he said.
“It was really about timing as far as the Tampa Bay Derby goes, the two-turn experience is important. The fact we were able to win the 2010 Kentucky Derby with Super Saver, who started off his campaign in the Tampa Derby, we’ve had some success there before so we thought it was a logical path to take.”
Last year, Pletcher’s Derby horses were whittled down to two, Gemologist and El Padrino, neither of whom was a factor in the race. As we head into the meat of the Derby Championship Series no other trainer’s barn is as equipped to don the roses in May.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.com.