- The Washington Times - Friday, May 4, 2007

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Hall of Fame thoroughbred trainer D. Wayne Lukas can count on it happening every so often. He will board an airplane, and the chatty person next to him asks about his profession. When Lukas responds, the next two questions are inevitable.

“They always ask, ‘Have you been in the Kentucky Derby?’ and ‘Have you won the Kentucky Derby?’ ” Lukas said. “They don’t ask you about the Breeders’ Cup or the Dubai Classic.”

Todd Pletcher can relate. Over the last three years, he has won just about every type of race on every type of surface in every part of the country. He has won three consecutive Eclipse Awards as the nation’s top conditioner and has a powerful 200-horse stable.

But the “big one” — a Triple Crown victory in general and a Kentucky Derby win in particular — has eluded him.

This week at Churchill Downs, as he prepares five horses (which ties the record set by Lukas and Nick Zito) for tomorrow’s Kentucky Derby, Pletcher, 39, has faced the same kind of questions Phil Mickelson did before winning the Masters and Peyton Manning did before winning the Super Bowl.

• Why haven’t you won the Derby?

• When will you win the Derby?

“I’m not as excited about having five in there — I want to have one that wins,” Pletcher said. “That’s more important to me.”

Since his Derby debut in 2000, Pletcher has finished second with Invisible Ink (2001) and Bluegrass Cat (2006). Eight of his starters have placed 11th or worse. But he says this year features his best group.

Circular Quay (8-1) and Scat Daddy (10-1) are Pletcher’s two best shots. Also running are Any Given Saturday (12-1), Cowtown Cat (20-1) and Sam P. (20-1).

Pletcher is a combined 0-for-21 in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont and 2-for-41 in the Breeders’ Cup.

“I don’t think Todd’s feeling that pressure because he’s having such a great run,” Lukas said. “He’s very aware of it, and he’s going to win one. He’ll have his day. Sometimes in sports you get a long run with athletes and teams and people, but they don’t get the ring. I’m sure he’ll feel a lot better when he does.”

Owners write big checks to purchase horses and then put them in Pletcher’s care, even without a Triple Crown race win on his resume.

“If you could pick the best characteristics and qualities for a trainer, Todd has all of those,” said Satish Sanan, who owns a piece of Any Given Saturday and morning-line favorite Curlin (trained by Steve Asmussen). “He’s probably the best organized individual there is.”

Elliott Walden, a former trainer who is now vice president and racing manager for Winstar Farm, which holds ownership stakes in Any Given Saturday and Sam P., said Pletcher adopted the right strategy upon starting his own stable in 1996.

“I’ve been very impressed with him all along,” Walden said. “He had a very good lead-in to where he is today because he grew into his business for four, five years. He just didn’t go from two horses to 200. It was 10 to 20 to 50 to 100. He was able to manage his help, and it’s worked well for him.”

Much is made of Pletcher’s 200-horse stable. But he has six assistants, and Walden said there is little difference between training 120 and 200 charges.

“I felt he could do the job because I was comfortable doing the job with those numbers,” Walden said.

Tomorrow at Churchill Downs and Arlington Park, Pletcher will have 12 horses owned by nine different ownership groups running. On Sunday, he had 41 horses working, followed by 21 on Monday.

Pletcher is able to massage the egos of his clients even as he is constantly buried in condition books from Churchill, Belmont, Arlington Park and other tracks.

“He doesn’t lose any draft choices — he has clients that step up and buy the right horse,” Lukas said. “He has people that will keep him in the arena for awhile.”

Pletcher’s four Derby horses who weren’t bred by their owners cost a combined $3.05 million. But he has taken a different approach to preparing for this year’s race. Instead of the traditional route — a final prep race three to four weeks before the Derby — he altered his plans to fit each horse.

For Circular Quay and Scat Daddy, the layoffs were eight and five weeks, respectively.

“We hope we’re bringing a fresher horse to the Derby,” Pletcher said. “I’m pleased with the way the horses have run. It’s always hard to look back and figure out what we should have done. I still don’t feel that, in years past, we’ve brought the best horse to the race. I’m hoping one of ours is this year. A win is what we want.”

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