Trainer Todd Pletcher has five fingers wrapped around the 139th Kentucky Derby.
But not a stranglehold.
He’ll have busy hands in the paddock this evening, saddling five of the 19 running in the Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs, which has a scheduled post time of 6:34 p.m., and will be broadcast on NBC.
Among his horses is undefeated but lightly raced Wood Memorial winner Verrazano, and two other winners of major Derby preps — Revolutionary (Louisiana Derby) and Overanalyze (Arkansas Derby) — as well as the place and show finishers from the Grade I Blue Grass, Palace Malice and Charming Kitten.
There is no guarantee of success in this race, though, no matter how many live shots you bring to the starting gate.
There are several other top contenders, such as Florida Derby winner Orb, who is the 7-2 morning-line favorite in a rare Derby appearance for Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey.
Trainer Doug O’Neill also returns to the scene of his greatest victory, last year’s Derby won by I’ll Have Another. He’ll saddle Grade I Santa Anita Derby winner Goldencents, who certainly will have plenty of local backing, since Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino owns a minor share.
Also adding to the uncertainty is the prospect of rain, which is not expected to be heavy, but will be persistent.
Still, preparations for Pletcher’s quintet have gone without a hitch, and he comes into the race brimming with confidence that one of his horses will win.
“We’re 100 percent done; we’ll leave well enough alone from here,” he said on Friday morning, after his colts had gotten one more easy tour around the main track. “We laid out a plan to get here with them, and it’s all come down pretty much like we hoped.”
The field was reduced from 20 to 19 when Spiral winner Black Onyx was scratched Friday morning due to a chip in his left ankle. The scratch occurred just late enough to prevent also-eligible Fear the Kitten from drawing into the field.
Black Onyx had drawn the No. 1 post, and the stewards decided not to shift the field over one stall, so the 1 will remain empty.
Pletcher is the first trainer in Derby history to have five horses in the race twice.
Of the five he ran in 2007, the best result was a sixth by Circular Quay.
Nick Zito also saddled five in 2005, with none better than seventh (Bellamy Road), and D. Wayne Lukas was the first to have five, in 1996, when he won it with Grindstone.
Pletcher had four in 2010, when he won it with Super Saver, and there are already some echoes to that race, since Calvin Borel, known for rail-skimming rides, has been named to ride Revolutionary from the No. 3 post, with just Oxbow inside of him at the start. That was Borel’s third Derby win in a span of four years; he’ll be inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame this summer in Saratoga Springs.
“Calvin is going to want to get to the inside with this horse as soon as he can, and drawing inside like this only makes it easier for him,” Pletcher said.
Pletcher’s other starters will break in pairs side-by-side.
Overanalyze and Palace Malice drew the 9 and 10, respectively, and Verrazano and Charming Kitten will be in 14 and 15.
“Overall, from a saddling perspective, I like it,” Pletcher said. “With four of my horses side by side, it will make it easier for me to get those saddles on. I do think we did really well with our posts.”
Since Pletcher’s program puts significant emphasis on performing well at Saratoga Race Course, it’s no surprise that four of his five ran there as 2-year-olds last year.
Revolutionary was third in his career debut on closing day, Overanalyze broke his maiden first time out before finishing fourth to Shanghai Bobby in the Hopeful, Palace Malice broke his maiden there and Charming Kitten also did so, on the turf, before finishing third in the With Anticipation on the turf. He’s never run on conventional dirt in seven career starts.
Also running at Saratoga last year were the Lukas pair, Oxbow and Will Take Charge, and Orb, who was third behind Violence and Titletown Five in a maiden race.
McGaughey’s Hall of Fame career hasn’t included much Derby participation.
He has started just six, in four derbies, and his best finish was Easy Goer’s second to Sunday Silence in 1989.
Orb, a son of Malibu Moon, has won four straight, including a Fountain of Youth victory over Violence in a rematch of their Saratoga debut, and an impressive 23⁄4-length win over Itsmyluckyday in the Florida Derby.
Jockey John Velazquez chose to ride Verrazano over Orb, who will get the services of the white-hot Joel Rosario and will break from the 16, two gates outside of Verrazano.
“I think from where he is, we’ll try to hold our position and maybe try to creep in a little bit around the first turn, and then Joel can watch what’s going on inside of him,” McGaughey said. “He can watch what Johnny is doing on Verrazano. If Johnny thinks Orb is the horse to beat, he’s going to be watching what we’re doing, too.”
“I’m not surprised they made Orb the favorite; he’s a very, very good horse,” Velazquez said. “There are 19 other horses in the race, but, obviously, he is one I fear.”
Lukas, who has won three other derbies besides Grindstone’s — 1988 (Winning Colors), 1995 (Thunder Gulch) and 1999 (Charismatic) — said too much can be made about post positions.
You have to have the horse, as they say.
“We overanalyze this all the time,” he said. “The four I won it with, I can’t remember their post position, so it must not have been too important.
“I don’t think we’ve got Secretariat in this bunch, even Seattle Slew. So I think it’s going to boil down to trip and the pace and a lot of other things. If my horses are good enough, we’ll find out.”