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UA grad Pletcher hopes to end 0-for-21 mark at Derby

UA grad Pletcher batting 0 for 21

Exercise rider Patti Barry takes Kentucky Derby hopeful Dunkirk for a workout at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. Trainer Todd Pletcher (left) watches his horses as they train for the derby.

Exercise rider Patti Barry takes Kentucky Derby hopeful Dunkirk for a workout at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. Trainer Todd Pletcher (left) watches his horses as they train for the derby.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – D. Wayne Lukas remembers the lean years in the early 1980s when he’d come to Churchill Downs with a hot Kentucky Derby contender and leave watching somebody else’s horse draped in the traditional blanket of roses given to the winner.

It took the Hall of Fame trainer 13 starts over eight Derbys before he broke through with Winning Colors.

The wait seemed like forever, which is why Lukas knows better than most the frustration of protégé Todd Pletcher, a University of Arizona graduate who enters Saturday’s Run for the Roses sporting a dubious 0-for-21 mark, the most Derby starts by a trainer without a win.

While he sympathizes with Pletcher’s troubles, Lukas also can’t help but take a friendly shot at his former assistant turned Eclipse Award winner.

“It gets a little bit bad when you get 0-for-(21),” Lukas said with a laugh. “But Todd, there’s certainly one with his name on it out there somewhere.”

Pletcher has three chances to snap his streak when he sends Dunkirk, Advice and Join in the Dance to the post late Saturday afternoon at Churchill Downs.

It’s hardly Pletcher’s most accomplished group.

Dunkirk, a co-second choice at 4-1 from post No. 15, is talented but still largely untested.

Advice is the only Pletcher runner with a graded stakes win, but that came two weeks ago at Keeneland and the short turnaround is a problem for oddsmakers, who listed him at 30-1.

Join in the Dance only made the field after a series of horses dropped out of the Derby picture and Pletcher admits things would have to go beyond perfect for the 50-1 long shot to stun the field. There’s a better chance of Join in the Dance finishing last, something a Pletcher horse has done in each of the last three Derbys.

“Sometimes it goes like that,” said Pletcher, who earned his bachelor of animal science from UA in 1989.

“It looks like you’re holding a really hot hand in January and you have nothing in May and sometimes it’s the other way around. It doesn’t look like you have anything in January and it all comes together.”

Pletcher usually keeps 30 2-year-olds in training with an eye toward the next year’s Derby. Pletcher’s 2008 crop of youngsters, however, didn’t exactly look promising. Pletcher admits in January he thought Dunkirk was his only shot.

The gray colt came to the trainer’s barn with plenty of fanfare after being scooped up for $3.7 million as a yearling during a 2007 sale at Keeneland.

It didn’t exactly look like money well spent after shin problems kept Dunkirk off the track as a 2-year-old.

Pletcher never panicked, knowing his horse just needed time to get through some growing pains. After a couple of impressive races against lesser competition, Dunkirk ran a strong second to Quality Road in the Florida Derby on March 28.

The race validated Pletcher’s patience, but it still took a number of defections, including Quality Road, to get Dunkirk in the Derby.

“In Dunkirk’s situation we were flying underneath the radar from a public standpoint but within the organization we felt like we had something special we could come here with,” he said. “Obviously we’re up against a lot of history and you have to respect that, but I feel like for a horse that’s lightly raced that he’s had a lot thrown at him.”

Pletcher points to jockey Garrett Gomez’s hesitation to pick between Pioneerof the Nile (trained by UA grad Bob Baffert) and Dunkirk as evidence of his colt’s potential.

On paper Pioneerof the Nile, winner of four straight graded stakes, seemed the easy choice. Gomez, however, debated for weeks before opting to go with Baffert’s horse. Edgar Prado will ride Dunkirk in the Derby.

“It speaks to Dunkirk’s ability that it was a tough decision for Garrett,” Pletcher said.

There hasn’t been quite as much hand-wringing over Pletcher’s other two mounts, both of whom were barely on the Derby radar until recently. Are they good enough to compete on Saturday? Pletcher knows it doesn’t really matter to owners with a case of Derby fever.

“It’s difficult to tell people, ‘Your horse is doing well, he’s got enough graded earnings (but) you shouldn’t run in this race,’ ” he said. “It’s the one race everybody wants to be involved in so it’s more difficult to tell someone ‘No’ in this situation.”

Standing outside his barn at Churchill Downs this week, Pletcher seemed relaxed and realistic about his chances.

“It’s very tough to get here and to get here with a chance,” he said. “Any time you have 20 horses instead of one, you obviously have a better chance at least of getting here but there’s going to be one winner.”

Exercise rider Joe Deggan takes Kentucky Derby favorite I Want Revenge off the track following his workout at Churchill Downs.

Exercise rider Joe Deggan takes Kentucky Derby favorite I Want Revenge off the track following his workout at Churchill Downs.



Post, horse Jockey Odds

1. West Side Bernie Elliott 30-1

2. Musket Man Coa 20-1

3. Mr. Hot Stuff Velazquez 30-1

4. Advice Douglas 30-1

5. Hold Me Back Desormeaux 15-1

6. Friesan Fire Saez 6-1

7. Papa Clem Bejarano 20-1

8. Mine That Bird Borel 50-1

9. Join in the Dance DeCarlo 50-1

10. Regal Ransom Garcia 30-1

11. Chocolate Candy Smith 20-1

12. General Quarters Leparoux 20-1

13. I Want Revenge Talamo 3-1

14. Atomic Rain Bravo 50-1

15. Dunkirk Prado 4-1

16. Pioneerof the Nile* Gomez 4-1

17. Summer Bird Rosier 50-1

18. Nowhere to Hide Bridgmohan 50-1

19. Desert Party Dominguez 15-1

20. Flying Private Albarado 50-1

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