JIM LITKE: No more 0-for-the-first-Saturday in May

By Jim Litke/The Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Until a game bay colt named Super Saver found his groove along the rail, it looked like the streak might go on forever. Racing can be especially cruel that way.

Lots of guys waste a lifetime trying to win the one that matters most. In Todd Pletcher’s case, it only seemed that long.

Most trainers never get even one horse all the way to the Kentucky Derby, let alone 24. Yet that’s how many the 42-year-old Pletcher had entered since he came here for the first time in 2000 with Impeachment. Somehow, over that stretch, he was a startling 0-for-the-first-Saturday in May.

Startling because Pletcher had won just about everything else the sport has to offer: the Belmont with unlikely filly Rags to Riches in 2007, and four straight Eclipse Awards as trainer of the year. That was the least surprising thing about Pletcher. He runs an organization instead of a stable; he’s got more horses running at any moment than anybody else in the sport, more than some trainers see in a career.

True to form, Pletcher had seven of them pointed at the Derby just two weeks ago. Then he walked into the barn on the backstretch Sunday morning at 4:30 a.m., looked at consensus favorite Eskendereya’s still-swollen front left leg and knew he had to pull the colt. On Monday, he did the same to Rule. On Wednesday, it was Interactif.

Down to four entries, Pletcher kept telling anyone who asked that he put the disappointment of Eskendereya behind him and still felt blessed just to be in the race.

“A lot of times things work out for a reason,” he said afterward. “Sometimes, it’s not just about you.”

Yet all week long, so much of the news focused on Pletcher’s oh-fer. He was asked whether he had an established routine during Derby week and Pletcher deadpanned that he kept changing it in hopes of finding one that would work. He was asked whether he was tired of talking about the drought and replied it went with the territory.

Then Pletcher made it a point to end nearly every session with what became a kind of tagline: “Honestly, if we win on Saturday, I don’t think I’d be any better of a trainer than I am today.”

Good as his word, Pletcher repeated it barely an hour after the race. He slipped into the horsemen’s lounge to watch it alone, waiting until jockey Calvin Borel had Super Saver pulling away at the 3/16th pole to let himself believe this one could be different.

“I think it will all soak in a day or two. Obviously, it’s a race I dreamed my whole life about winning,” Pletcher said, then paused. “It’s kind of all soaking in still.”

But the guys who helped make it possible sounded more excited than Pletcher did.

Borel, who won his third Derby in the last four years, said, “It means everything in the world, because I know what the feeling is like.”

“It’s just special to be sitting up here with him,” said Elliott Walden, who manages WinStar Farm for the winning connections. If you want to know how deep respect for Pletcher runs among his peers, consider that Walden, a former trainer, finished second in the Derby twice himself.

“I know we’ve been disappointed a few times. You just hope and pray. It’s special,” Walden said one more time, “to win it with Todd.”

Yet the man of the hour felt compelled to note that he still takes winning and losing the same way. In a game where the very best win only a quarter of the time, it helps preserve their sanity. The only time Pletcher showed any emotion was talking about how important it was to get the Derby win as a way to pay back his father, Jake, a former trainer, and mother Jerrie, for their long-suffering support.

“My mom said it was the greatest day of her life,” he said. “The one thing that was important to me, the one thing I wanted to do was (win) while my parents were still here to see it.”

On his way to the winner’s circle, Pletcher crossed the paddock pumping his right arm and smiling broadly. He ran into two-time, Derby-winning counterpart Nick Zito, stopped and shook hands. Pletcher already had a resume that put him in the same class as Zito, as well as Bob Baffert (three Derby wins) and even his mentor, D. Wayne Lukas (four).

But there was always that gaping hole.

Now it’s gone.

“I wish I could tell you exactly what we did to make this happen,” Pletcher said.

He better figure that out fast. Because whatever it is, he’s going to be asked to do it again two weeks from now at the Preakness. And if all goes well, another three weeks after that in the Belmont with racing’s Triple Crown on the line. No one has accomplished that feat in 32 years.

“I’m going to win the Triple Crown this year. I’m going all the way,” Borel said, with his trainer standing alongside.

“I’ll go with it,” Pletcher said in a rare moment of cockiness.

Winning the Derby might not have made him a better trainer, but it certainly made him a more confident one.

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org