Eric Wing: Welcome indeed to today’s NTRA Communications National Media teleconference. Obviously the focus today will be the 139th Kentucky Derby taking place a week from Saturday at Churchill Downs in Louisville. Of course, NBC and the NBC Sports Network will have all the television coverage of Derby Day, and the Kentucky Oaks, and all that good stuff.
We’ve got three excellent guests to talk Derby with us today. A little later on we’ll check in with trainer Eddie Plesa. He, of course, is the conditioner of Itsmyluckyday. We’ll also talk to Todd Pletcher. He’s got probably five maybe as many as six horses who could conceivably run in the derby; those being, in alphabetical order, Charming Kitten, Overanalyze, Palace Malice, Revolutionary, Verrazano, and maybe Winning Cause, we’ll see about him.
First up, though, we’re delighted to have with us the trainer of Goldencents, Doug O’Neill. And Doug does have to go to an appointment in about 15 or 18 minutes, so we want to ask you to limit your questions to Doug one per person, and if we have time after we cycle through, we’ll certainly be happy to take your follow-ups. But, Doug, it’s Eric Wing in New York. Thanks so much for being with us today.
Doug O’Neill: Thanks for having me, Eric.
Eric Wing: Always a pleasure. Thank you. And first of all, Doug, just kind of the 30,000 foot view question. What’s it feel like coming in as something of a defending champion trainer of the Kentucky Derby?
Doug O’Neill: It’s an incredible feeling. I mean when you think of the names like the Fitzsimmons, and the Jones, and just the history that goes along with this great race in the Kentucky Derby, and to be able to walk down that hall with some just real greats, it’s unbelievable.
Eric Wing: Yes, I can imagine. Doug, Goldencents is clearly a high octane horse. Kevin Krigger just looked like he was loaded the whole way around in the Santa Anita Derby. What’s your confidence level about Goldencents being able to harness all that talent and ability and get the mile and a quarter?
Doug O’Neill: Well, it’s a lot better now after watching the Santa Anita Derby. But, you know, he’s a horse that’s always shown us a lot of talent, and, you know, he won his debut so impressively. And he never gets tired, so he’s always shown us that he’s got the speed and the stamina to get a mile and a quarter. But, you know, I’d be lying if I wasn’t worried. We were all a little bit concerned with the race prior to the Santa Anita Derby, but we did some adjustments and it really paid off and hopefully it’ll keep paying off.
Danny Brewer: Is the dream you’ve been living this year any different from last year, and are you trying to keep it the same?
Doug O’Neill: Wow, you know, it just—the dream seems to be getting better, Danny. It’s unbelievable. And, you know, I think last year with I’ll Have Another, we were all fired up after winning the Santa Anita Derby, but really still thought in our minds that the Kentucky Derby was so far fetched; you need such a great horse and so much racing luck to get it done. And so I think having got it done, this year’s dream just seems more real, like we could possibly do it back to back.
Ron Flatter: Kevin mentioned in the interview after the race on HRTV that you had done something to get Goldencents to relax at least insofar as in that race something going on in the mornings. What’s—what was the secret there to getting him to relax for that race, and does it carry over to the Derby?
Doug O’Neill: Ron, I’d have to kill you if I told you. Okay, no, you know, I think the biggest thing with these beautiful horses is they’re all individuals, and I get caught up probably like everyone else does sometimes where you let them train themselves and you let them do their thing. I mean you really—you try to stay out of their way. And it was working like that up until the San Felipe, and then it just really seemed like I needed to make some adjustments. And the adjustments we made, we just haven’t let him do as much in the mornings as he was doing prior to all his other starts. And, you know, I wasn’t sure if that was going to leave a short horse, or if it was going to leave a horse with more energy, and it sure left a horse with a lot more energy for the Santa Anita Derby.
C.L. Brown: I was just wondering if you could kind of give me the quick back story on how you guys selected Kevin to the be jockey?
Doug O’Neill: Well, Kevin, you know, was real successful up in Northern California prior to coming down to Southern California. He’s represented by a really good guy in Tom Knust, and I’ve been friends with Tom for a long time. So, you know, Tom said, listen, I’d love to bring Kevin by the barn. And I had known of Kevin a little bit prior to that moment, and one thing led to another. He worked Goldencents maybe six weeks or so before his debut, and he got off him, and in his best U.S. Virgin accent just said, wow, man, this horse can really run. And I had Kevin and Tom start planting the seeds to the owners of Goldencents, and they fell in love with him right away, too. So that’s kind of how it all worked. And the, of course, no matter how much you love a person they’ve got to have some chemistry with the horse, and thank God, not only is he a great person, a great rider, but he’s got great chemistry with Goldencents.
Tim Wilkin: Do you see any similarities between Goldencents and I’ll Have Another?
Doug O’Neill: You know, I think the biggest similarity, they’re both very mentally tough. You know, they’re—they both seem like they handle the crowds and the shipping with not a problem. You know, Goldencents in his short little career has already flown to New York, he’s flown to Louisiana, and handled both of those without an issue. So I think that’s probably the biggest similarity is they’re both very competitive and mentally tough.
Ryan Goldberg: Just wanted to ask you what your thoughts are on the point system this year, and how it affected plans for your horses throughout the season, not just Goldencents but He’s Had Enough, who, you know, probably would’ve got into the Derby off of, you know, his juvenile run last year. So I was just wondering what your thoughts were on the point system and how it’s turned out.
Doug O’Neill: Well, it’s turned out good for us, so I like that end of it. You know, I think there’s something—there are some reasons why this point system could really play out better in the future, and I think they’ve talked about making some tweaks to it. And, you know, obviously some of the top fillies not having any points seems wrong, so they probably have to tweak with that a little bit, and—but, you know, I—you do feel bad for a horse that wins the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and he’s not automatically in; that seems something’s wrong with that. But, yes, I think they really want you not to rest on your laurels of your two year old campaign, and really work hard as a three year old developing and earning that trip to the Kentucky Derby. So I think it’s added some intrigue and some strategizing to everybody. And knock on wood, it hasn’t really been a huge factor for us, but we’ve been blessed that, you know, we felt pretty comfortable going into the Santa Anita Derby that we just needed to kind of hit the board to get in there, and in reality, if you didn’t hit the board, we weren’t going to go anyway, so it worked out okay.
Bill Finley: Hi, Doug. I was wondering, last year you took a pretty unusual route where you bypassed the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile off the good performance in the Champagne; instead went to Delta Downs. Obviously now you can look in the rearview mirror, and it’s working out pretty well for you, but could you talk about that decision, why you made it, and how it has worked out for you?
Doug O’Neill: Sure. You know, he wasn’t nominated—he wasn’t a Breeders’ Cup nom, so it would’ve cost the client a lot of money to run in the Breeders’ Cup, so that really was an instant knock on that choice. And, you know, we just kind of used the Delta Downs race as, you know, that was our Breeders’ Cup—you know—our big race as a two year old, and that worked out perfect.
Debbie Arrington: What sort of personality does Goldencents have around the barn, and does he have any nicknames?
Doug O’Neill: Well, Champ. We call him Champ. You know, he’s real laid back. He’s got that perfect way about him where he’s really quiet in the stall. If somebody comes to the stall, he’ll walk right up to the front of the stall and interact with you, but if not, he’ll just stand by the side of the wall, and, you know, lay down. He’s just a real—real easy on himself in the stall. And around the barn he’s got good energy, but not, you know, very controlled and not at all wild or skittish. You know, he’s just a class act.
Beth Harris: Last year you went on quite a rollercoaster ride through the whole Triple Crown, whether it was with the media or a lot of other things. What are you expecting going this time? Do you feel like everybody’s moved past that or are you bracing yourself that you’re going to have to kind of deal with some of that again?
Doug O’Neill: That’s a good question. Yes, you know, I think last year for every couple pats on the back we got like one kick in the groin, so this year we’re expecting maybe like four or five pats on the back before you’re getting the kick in the groin. But, you know, like last year, we’ve got a tremendous team going with us and we’ve got a great support system, and we’ve got a lot of owners/friends/supporters that, you know, it’s all part of it. When you’ve—I would rather have a good horse and answer the tough questions than a slow horse and nobody asking anything. So I’m excited and couldn’t pick a better horse and owners to go with than Goldencents and his owners.
John Pricci: You talked about changing up things and making adjustments going into the Santa Anita Derby. This is a little different; this is tougher, this is longer. Are we making further adjustments from there, and, you know, how does that play into the added distance a week from Saturday?
Doug O’Neill: Good question. I really think a horse, they either have it in them or they don’t, and I really believe this horse has got a mile and a quarter in him. And the adjustments we’ve made going into the Santa Anita Derby really seemed to add energy to him, even though to watch him in the morning you might’ve—it might look like, you know, we were training less hard than we were into the previous races. But I’m going to keep—it worked so well there, I’m going to keep going with it. He still gets out there and he stretches his legs and he gives us a good mile and a half every morning, and he’s, you know, he brings 110% to the track every day, so we’re going to keep with that same approach. He had a good breeze the other day, and if all goes well he’ll have another six furlong breeze this Thursday, and then he’ll gallop right into the race.
C.L. Brown: I wanted to just kind of ask about Kevin. And I was just wondering from a historical perspective, there hasn’t been a black jockey that’s won—only the second one to compete and won since 1921 I think; something like that. I was just wondering if from a historical perspective if you could talk about, you know, has Kevin talked about how all big, you know, how big this could be potentially, and just how big his presence is going to be in general?
Doug O’Neill: That’s a great question. Actually it was 1902 when Jimmy Winkfield won it, and the irony is that the trainer was an Irish guy named Thomas McDowell. So Kevin’s going to be playing Wickfield and I’m going to be playing McDowell here come May 4th.
But, you know, one of the great things about Kevin and just about every jockey that is lined up in the race here come May 4th is these kids are just phenomenal the way they handle all the pressure. And Kevin is no exception. He’s just got ice running through his veins, and, you know, he’s got that let’s bring it on instead of the—in awe of the whole thing, even though it is a pretty amazing historical fact that it’s been a long time since an African American has won the race. So I think it’s time to make it—to have it happen again, and I’m hoping May 4th that Kevin and I are both part of a great history of this great race.
Dick Downey: Hey, Doug. I was just wondering if you’ve thought about your preference for post position? Would you want number 19 again this year, or what do you think about all that?
Doug O’Neill: You know, it sure worked good last year. It does seem like the farther out you are the less chance of you getting caught up in that soup going into the first turn. But, you know, whatever happens, the great thing is Goldencents has a lot of natural speed away from the gate, so I don’t think it’s as crucial as it seemed like it was for I’ll Have Another. But that’s one thing I’d love to see in the point system, you know, whoever had the highest points could choose where they wanted to select, and then work your way down. I think that would be pretty interesting, and the one with the least points gets whatever remaining post is left. But I’m sure that will never happen, but that would work well for us this year.
Eric Wing: All right. Well, Doug, really appreciate you taking the time to be with us and talk to us about Goldencents on the dark day of racing there. Hope it didn’t feel too much like a kick in the groin today, but thank you again, and we wish you and Kevin and your whole team the best of luck a week from Saturday.
Doug O’Neill: You’re the best, Eric. Thanks so much.
Eric Wing: Thank you. That’s Doug O’Neill, trainer of last year’s Derby winner, I’ll Have Another, and trainer of this year’s Santa Anita Derby winner, Goldencents. He’ll be looking to make it back to back Derbys for team O’Neill in the run for the roses on May 4th in Louisville.
Okay, that will bring us to our next guest. It’s Eddie Plesa, and he trains the fast son of Lawyer Ron, Itsmyluckyday. And I understand we’re still in the process of reaching out to Eddie, so we’ll ask you to just bear with us for a couple of moments, and we expect to have Eddie on very shortly. Of course, Itsmyluckyday has made three starts in 2013. Interestingly, he was up a track behind Goldencents in the aforementioned Delta Jackpot. He was sixth, beaten seven and a quarter lengths in the Delta Jackpot, but he sure did turn it around in 2013 starting on the first day of the year with a big win in the Gulfstream Park Derby, then a big win also in the Holy Bull before his runner-up finish in the Florida Derby.
Eric Wing: Eddie, we were talking about—just while you were joining in, all of his exploits this year, and he’s clearly one of the fastest three year olds in 2013. What’s the key to him turning the tables on a horse like Orb as he stretches out to a mile and a quarter?
Eddie Plesa: I think the key to it is for us to hit our best day, and improve off of our last race. The Florida Derby, as nice as it would’ve been to win, it wasn’t my main focus. If it would’ve been, I would’ve done things differently with the horse. The main focus is the first Saturday in May. And with that being said, I think he had 62 days off between the Florida Derby and his race previous to that. We gave him a little easy light training time during that course, and then started to crank him up with the idea of the first Saturday in May. Not going to take anything away from Orb’s performance; it was sensational, no ifs ands or buts about that, but, again, I don’t think we were at 100%, and he’ll have no excuses coming into the Derby. He will be 100%.
Eric Wing: Eddie, you’re an outstanding and accomplished horseman, but I feel it only fair to point out that where your family is concerned, perhaps Derby bragging rights go to your brother-in-law, John Servis, who, of course, won in 2004 with Smarty Jones. Since 2004, this will be your first Derby starter since Smarty Jones did his thing. Since then, has John offered up or insisted upon you any advice or comments that might actually be helpful for you this time around?
Eddie Plesa: Listen, we come from a very close knit family. Needless to say, John’s an outstanding trainer, as is his brother Jason, and John has experienced this so he’s there for me if I have any questions. You know, he’s rooting like the rest of us, just like I was rooting for him when it was his day in the sun, so to speak. He’s there if I need him, no question about it, and the only thing is if we’re lucky enough for me to follow in his footsteps, that certainly will put a lot of pressure on his brother Jason. So we’ll see what happens that way.
Debbie Arrington: This has been a really contentious Derby class. What do you think of this Derby group, and how would you handicap it?
Eddie Plesa: Listen, I think it’s an excellent Derby group of horses. I think you have a lot of individuals that you’re going to hear a lot about later on. Needless to say, we’re all pulling for the same race, and I think it’s an exciting time, and only time will tell as far as the quality of this class. But my first impression, not just because of my horse, but just because of the horses that are in there, I think we’re going to find out it’s a very, very competitive and good class.
Debbie Arrington: And do you think that the Eastern horses have an edge over the West or vice versa, or—who are you looking out for?
Eddie Plesa: Well, I’m looking to the Eastern horses because those are the ones I’m most familiar with. Needless to say, there’s a track record coming from out West with Bob Baffert and all he’s accomplished here, so you have to be leery of him, so to speak. But all in all, from my experience with the East Coast horses, I think they’re going to be right at the top of the class.
Ron Flatter: Eddie, just looking back on Delta Downs, after that race you then—coming back, you took him to the turf. What was the thought there? I mean did you think he was going to be a turf horse, or were you still just sort of looking for where he was going to find himself?
Eddie Plesa: Well, I had to put a line for the race at Delta only because it’s the configuration and the trip that we had in the race and the inexperience not only the horse had but the rider that I chose had. So, you know, we came out of that race in good order. He had run on the turf before. He had run well. The race was there, and so we—you know, he was kicking down the barn, so to speak, so it was a spot for us to go ahead and run him. And I’m a big believer in horses off of turf and then next start running to dirt. I think that’s a plus and it certainly turned out that way as far as I was concerned. But, you know, this horse can handle any surface I believe. I don’t care if it’s at Calder, which is unlike any surface; Monmouth Park turf, Gulfstream Park and hopefully Churchill Downs. I don’t think surface is a problem with him, and I think maybe we’ll find at a later date that he’s—he would—he could be competitive enough to win a stake race on the turf, though that’s—I mean not in our plans right now.
Ron Flatter: Eric also had mentioned the fact that this is just on paper such a fast horse or such a speedy horse. I mean among the contenders for the Derby, Verrazano and then Super Ninety Nine who zoomed off the trail, and yours are the only ones with two triple Beyers Figure. Do you put much stock into the buyers and look at it and go, okay, wow, we’ve got something here, or do you use your own eyeballs to figure that out?
Eddie Plesa: Well, certainly I rely on my own instincts and experience in this. Beyers I think are a useful tool for a lot of people. I think you can fine tune them with other things; the Thoroughgraph and certainly the Ragozin numbers. And when you look at the Rag numbers or the Thoroughgraph, you’re going to see that he’s equally as impressive, maybe more so with their numbers. I’m not choosing them because they’re flattering to me in this time, but all the people that I know when they’re buying and selling horses depend on those two systems rather than the buyer numbers. So, you know, does he have outstanding numbers? Absolutely. I’m just hoping he can duplicate it on the first Saturday in May. If he does, I think he’ll be an extremely tough horse in the race.
Danny Brewer: With a name like Itsmyluckyday, is he destined to win this thing?
Eddie Plesa: Well, listen, it’s part of the—it’s part of the process. I mean we didn’t name him. We bought him with that name. Certainly we like the name; we kept it, and I’m just hoping it proves out to be Itsmyluckyday.
Danny Brewer: There you go. Listen, when you talk about getting the horse ready and having him at 100%, what have you done—or have you done anything differently to get him to peak on May 4th?
Eddie Plesa: Well, again, it sounds ludicrous to say that we used the Florida Derby as a prep. In some ways we did. It was a race that came 62 days later after his race before that. Was he 100% fit in that race? No, I don’t believe he was. I believe he was close. I believe he was 95% or thereabouts. But when you’re running against a horse like Orb in the Florida Derby, you’d better be 100% fit. So with that being said, he’s gotten a good mile work into him since then. I think he’s as fine-tuned as I can get him. I think he’ll be 100% fit because of the reasons I just said, and I just wish it was this Saturday. You know, just let—come on, let’s get it over with and let’s do it. And, again, he’ll have no excuses going into this race. He’s just 110%.
Carol Holden: You mentioned that there’s so many racing folks in your family, and obviously the success of John. But what’s it like, because you’ve had a great deal of success yourself, but this is the first time in the national spotlight for you and I believe your other owners, so I’m wondering if you could just give us some of your thoughts and feelings on that?
Eddie Plesa: Well, the first thing I want to say is the people that are involved with this horse, David Melin and Marion Montanari, are certainly the kind of people that support racing, and what racing is all about. You know, we see big people coming in and buying horses and they’re in the business for five, 10 years, whatever it is, and then you don’t see them again. These people have been in the business—I’ve trained for them for over 22, 23 years. They’ve owned horses approximately 30 years. So it’s really exciting for me to be able to bring them to this venue; them being part of it. I truly wish that everybody that owns race horses would have an opportunity to experience something like we’re experiencing right now.
You know, I was at the Derby before and it was exciting, and you see when you’re there why people are willing to spend any kind of—any amount of money to get back there. It’s a very difficult process. You have to have a tremendous amount of luck. And it is—it’s a taxing thing for the horse, it’s taxing for the people that are associated with the horse, but it’s well worth it. So it can be intoxicating and certainly we’re experiencing that now and we welcome it.
Carol Holden: Do you get any special instructions from your wife Laurie, part owner?
Eddie Plesa: Well, she doesn’t pay her bills on time, that’s for sure. No, listen, she’s experienced it with John. She was at the Preakness, so she experienced that part of it. She was at the Belmont, so she experienced, the disappointment. Like you said, we’ve been doing it for a long time. Her father was a jockey; my father was a jockey. They rode with each other back in the fifties. She grew up in it; I grew up in it. I’m certainly a lot more hands on than she was. And with her brothers and everything else, it is a way of life for us. And, again, everybody’s on the same page; we always root for each other. And I’ve always said I’m very jealous of her father, because between John, Jason and myself, we have a number of horses. He always has somebody to root for or watch almost every single day. So, you know, it is what it is. It’s exciting for us.
Jay Privman: I was wondering if you could sort of elaborate on what you think the advantages are to staying at the Calder as long as you have, and—as opposed to any—if you see any sort of things that you’re not going to get by going into Churchill any earlier? Compare those two aspects.
Eddie Plesa: Yes, well listen, first of all, I get to stay home. That’s a big plus. Second of all, Calder’s racing surface I think will prepare you for any other racing surface, so I think that’s a plus. The third thing is we do not have to deal with weather conditions that may be happening or may arise in Kentucky. So I just think it’s—for our horse, it’s the right thing to do. He will be up there Saturday, and all his work will be done. He will be familiar—get familiar with the race track; probably will not work there. But, again, for us, it’s—it just seemed to make a lot of sense because of—Calder’s an unusual surface. And I know that you’re aware of that. Again, it’s a deeper surface that really gets you fit, and I just wanted to take advantage of that and just keep things as normal as I can for him for as long as I can.
Jay Privman: And is he going to breeze once more before you leave there?
Eddie Plesa: If I do it will be Thursday. I’m in a Ocala right now with a sale. I’ll be going back there tomorrow. Needless to say, I get daily reports from the barn, and the rider that gets on him every day told me, he says, listen, usually we rate everything one to 10, he says this is a 12, a 13 or 14. He says whatever high number you can come up with, that’s what it is. I’ll get down there and I’ll get a feeling for it. If I do work him, it’ll be easy. If I don’t work him, it’s only because I don’t think there’s anything else I can do to prepare this horse from a physical standpoint to get him any fitter or to do anything any differently than he’s going to do in the Derby. So, you know, from my standpoint, do you go ahead and work him because people expect you to work him? Do you work him because you think it’s the right thing to do, but at a cost where, you know, when you put horses under pressure they’re more apt to have something happen to them? And, you know, we’re this close, so it’s like I’m leaning towards not working him only because we’re this close, and I—he doesn’t need it. So it remains to be seen. If he does work, it’ll be Thursday.
Eric Wing: Eddie, Itsmyluckyday ran a big number in the Holy Bull and then you gave him lots of recovery time; two months until his next race, which was the Florida Derby. Has sheet methodology played a role in how you manage this horse or some of your other horses?
Eddie Plesa: I would like to tell you no. If the sheets dictated what I should do, then he wouldn’t have run in the Holy Bull. Because of the Gulfstream Park Derby he ran his best race. I don’t know, on the sheets I think it was about two and a half, which was by far his best race. And from what I know about the sheets, they tell you, you know, give him 30 days to recoup or they’re going to bounce off of that effort. We did not give him the 30 days. So to answer your question, I use them as a tool, I don’t use them as a tell all. They can’t tell me what to do with horses. I do like looking at them.
You know, you compare things the way they’re done today as opposed to the way they were done when Woody Stephens and those people were training and they didn’t have that information at hand, not that they would’ve paid any attention to it, because I don’t really think that they would have; they were comfortable in doing what they were doing. So the sheets are for people that maybe don’t quite understand the game, and they’re doing the best they can as far as understanding the game, but I think you have to have a feel of your horse and have confidence in yourself that you’re doing the right thing with the horse. So, you know, a long answer to a short question, the sheets are not going to dictate to me what I do with this horse.
Eric Wing: Very good. Well, you’ve been pushing all the right buttons so far with Itsmyluckyday, Eddie, and here’s hoping you’ve got one more successful button to push in Louisville a week from Saturday. Thanks so much for being with us, and best of luck there under the twin spires.
Eddie Plesa: My pleasure and thanks for everything, and see you soon I hope.
Eric Wing: All right, thanks very much. That’s Eddie Plesa, trainer of Itsmyluckyday, the fast Kentucky-bred son of Lawyer Ron. He’s already accounted for two stakes this year at Gulfstream, and he’ll be taking his act to Kentucky; one of I guess five racetracks he will have run at by Derby time. Itsmyluckyday trained by Eddie Plesa to take part in the Kentucky Derby on May 4th.
Okay, that will bring us to our third and final guest today, and he will be a busy man indeed, as he often is at Kentucky Derby time. Trainer Todd Pletcher has it looks like five horses on tap for the Derby: Charming Kitten, Overanalyze, Palace Malice, Revolutionary, and Verrazano. Could conceivably have a sixth in Winning Cause, who just last Saturday won the Coolmore Lexington Stakes. I know Todd said in the press that he wanted to take a little more time to decide what to do with that one. If he’s got any updates for us he can share them with us, because he joins us now. Todd, it’s Eric Wing in New York. How are you today?
Todd Pletcher: Good, Eric. Thank you.
Eric Wing: Todd, first of all, any update on Winning Cause, or are you still mulling that one over?
Todd Pletcher: No updates. We’re keeping an open mind and we’ll see how the horse trains this week and possibly even wait until breezing on Sunday before we make a real decision. But so far he’s come out of the Coolmore Lexington in good order and healthy and happy, and we’ll keep thinking about it.
Eric Wing: All right, very good. Todd, in years past it seemed like you would keep your Derby runners down in Florida as long as possible, and, I don’t know, perhaps due to better weather down there or some other factors. This year you’ve shipped to Churchill earlier. Why have you made this apparent switch?
Todd Pletcher: Well, the main reason is we just sort of had horses prepping in so many different places and felt like that this would be the easiest place to consolidate rather than moving everyone back to Florida after the Bluegrass, and the Wood Memorial, and the Louisiana Derby, and all those different races, that it would be easier just to consolidate here. And hopefully the weather will cooperate. So far it’s been a pretty nice couple of weeks here. We’re kind of looking ahead to the forecast. Saturday and Sunday looks like potential rain, which concerns me a little bit, but we’ll see how the forecast continues to develop.
Eric Wing: Okay. Todd, were you surprised or disappointed that Javier Castellano took off Revolutionary? And how did you and Elliot Walden decide upon Calvin Borel for him? Was it just a Supersaver/Karma thing, or was there more to it?
Todd Pletcher: Well, the first part of the question, yes, I mean I wasn’t disappointed that Javier took off. I mean he had a difficult decision to make. He’s in the enviable position where he was riding some very nice horses and several different potential Derby mounts. It was a very close call. And he rides a lot of horses for us. He also rides probably even more horses for Chad Brown so I think that made the decision even more difficult. But as far as Calvin Borel, you know, we kicked around the idea of several different jockeys. I think it’s no big secret that Calvin Borel is really at his best at Churchill. And I’ve said many times that he’s a great rider wherever he goes, but he seems to have a special knack here at Churchill from getting great trips, and his Derby success is practically unparalleled in the last 10 or 12 years anyways, and we just felt like with Good Karma and the fact that he won on Supersaver for us that, you know, it seemed like to me that it was kind of an easy
Danny Brewer: Iif this were Texas Hold’em, after the flop, you look like you’ve got four aces. Are you going to play this hand nervously confident or confidently nervous?
Todd Pletcher: Hold’em’s four aces and this game’s a little different than in Texas Hold’em. But I mean we’re blessed. We’re in a great position, and, you know, we’ve been here before with five horses as have Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito , and we all know that just having five doesn’t also mean that you’re going to win the race. There certainly will be only one winner, and I have a tremendous appreciation for how difficult the Kentucky Derby is to win. Even if you have the best horse, a lot of times that doesn’t mean you’re going to succeed. You have to have everything go right on the day and during the race, and get lucky with the weather, and the track condition, and all those things. But all that being said, you know, we’re—absolutely couldn’t be more happy with the cards that we’re holding at the moment, and, you know, we just hope to have another good 11 days leading up to it. Like I said, couldn’t be more excited about it.
Danny Brewer: How taxing, because I mean obviously it’s got to be tough just having one horse, but you’ve got five. How taxing is that on you and do you ever have time to talk to your wife and kids?
Todd Pletcher: Yes, I do actually. I mean basically if these horses were running in the Kentucky Derby or on an undercard race or somewhere else, we’d still be watching them closely and training them and preparing them for various races, so in a lot of ways it’s really not any different than if we had one or two running in it. Obviously everything and everyone’s under more of a microscope during this time and you’re watching the horses very, very carefully and hoping that things go well. But really, I think one of the things that if you’re not careful you can get lost in is trying to do something differently for the horses that are running in the Derby than you would for horses that are running in other races. And, you know, what we try to stay focused on is not getting carried away, not trying to be cute, not trying to do anything differently, but just focus on what has got these horses successfully to this point and trying to continue on that path.
Andrew Beyer: Todd, could you tell us how you view your relative lack of success in the Derby up until now? Do you think it’s just because of circumstance like Uncle Mo and Eskendereya getting knocked out of the race, or is it possible that you’re training regimen is somehow less effective in the Derby than in other races?
Todd Pletcher: Well, I think a couple ways you can look at it. I think for one, people seem to think that I’ve been training for 50 years or something, when in reality I first got my license in ’96 and I think we had our first Derby starters in 2000. So because of the number of horses that we’ve successfully gotten to the Derby, I think, it distorts the figures a little bit, and over the course of that time, the absolute best I think we could’ve done would’ve been won it 12 times, and we’ve won it once,—and we’ve had some quality seconds and thirds and fourths, and then we’ve had some horses run absolutely terrible.
So I don’t know that my training method is wrong for the race. I think we’ve proven that we can get here and win it. I would say that even if we were batting a much higher percentage I probably wouldn’t be completely satisfied. But hopefully we’ve learned over the years some things that we can do differently and have included a little bit each year. Like I said, it doesn’t guarantee that we can win it this year just because we’ve, at this point, potentially have five or six starters, but I think it shows that at least our methods of getting to this point are pretty effective.
John Pricci: The Breeders’ Cup two years ago, you and a lot of other trainers were pretty vocal in your displeasure with the racing surface. Now we’ve got a new race—we have a new superintendent there. Might that have entered into your decision to ship in a little early this year? And are you pleased with the surface? And if so, why?
Todd Pletcher: Well, yes, to back up to the Breeders’ Cup 2011, I think there was some sort of surface change perhaps during the summer in between the spring and the fall meet; probably was some additional clay. And the Churchill surface is normally a surface that dries out very quickly after a rain, and that particular case, it essentially did not dry out throughout the week. And I would describe it at that time as a peanut buttery-type surface that was sticky and demanding and it seemed like a lot of horses that were speed-oriented types didn’t do particularly well. But anyways, I think the surface at this time is in excellent condition. It seems like the horses that we’ve been training over it and breezing over it have been getting over it very well. Sometimes the track will change when the race meet starts and I think we’ll see how that develops once the races start here on Saturday, but so far I’ve been happy with it.
As far as that playing into the decision to come in early, it was in the back of my mind, but it was not one of he main reasons why we came in, no.
Joe DePaolo: I want to ask about the call to put Gary Stevens on (inaudible). Can you talk a little bit about the thought process behind that?
Todd Pletcher: Well, I’ve been a big fan of Gary’s for a number of years, and I think, you know, like everyone else, I was very interested when he decided to make a comeback. And I was actually amazed at how well he was riding and how good and youthful he looked on his horses. I mean he just is finishing, and the way he looked on just in general on the horses I thought was as good as he’s every looked; perhaps even better. And so I continued watching him as he was riding in California and some of these other preparations, and, you know, had some dialogue with him and some of his agents along the way just trying to see if there was somewhere we could fit him in on the team, and had him work Silsita here last Saturday and she worked very well for him; they seemed to get along great. And I think any time you can put a guy like Gary on in one of these big races with his experience that that’s a great asset.
Joe DePaolo: You also had him work Verrazano the other day, and he’s talked a lot about how he views a big part of his job is developing young horses and getting them to peak. Is there anything specific you think he brings (inaudible) that you thought might help Verrazano or some of your other runners?
Todd Pletcher: Well, the main thing we were looking at with the breeze on Verrazano on Sunday is I just wanted to make sure that it was executed properly. One of the things that we wanted to do was have him sit behind his workmate a little while and get a little dirt in his face, and that’s not something that we normally with our staff riders. So I was a little concerned about asking one of my exercise riders to do something different than what we do on a normal basis, so I felt like Gary with his experience would understand kind of what we were looking to accomplish. And like I said, he’d worked Sosita the day before for us and that went really well, so I wasn’t really thinking so much about long-term development of the horse, I think the horse is already here and where we need him, we’re just trying to educate him a little bit, and I thought Gary would be a good guy to do that. And as it turned out, him and McBush (ph), who worked Authenticity, executed the breeze to perfection.
Tim Wilkin: Are you satisfied and confident that Johnny’s going to be well enough to ride your horse, and is there a plan B in place if not?
Todd Pletcher: I’m totally confident that Johnny will be back. I’ve spoken to him several times during the last week, and he’s assured me that he’s doing great and that he’ll be back and ready to go, and that’s good enough for me.
Tim Wilkin: And also, you know, you have—you’ve ran plenty of races before where you had multiple starters, but, you know, but to have five in this—five maybe six in this one, do you have to balance how you handle each owner?
Todd Pletcher: You know, I actually have said this week—the same question’s been asked of me a couple of times—and believe it or not, I think the Derby’s actually one of the easier races to deal with your owners about, and a lot of times the prep races seems to be where you kind of have to talk through things a little more and discuss with them why you think a horse should go to a certain races versus perhaps a race that’s at the track that they’re based at. And, you know, sometimes I think that’s where you can have some issues that you have to work out. But I think understands once you get to this point that you have a three year old who’s qualified for the Oaks or the Derby that, you know, each individual owner’s certainly going to want to take their shot at that race and you don’t really have to explain that to anyone. You know, you’ve gotten to this point, so everyone’s going to take a shot in the big race and hope for the best.
Tim Wilkin: From your own perspective, do you ever find yourself giving more attention to one horse than another in big races like this?
Todd Pletcher: No. This particular race we’re training them all pointing for a race on a particular day, and we’ve got a 15 minute window here at Churchill to train the Oaks and Derby horses so we’re trying to fit most of them in in that time, and it’s actually a very convenient (inaudible) to focus on all of them.
Debbie Arrington: You’ve got quite a group coming into this race. Out of this five or six, who’s developed the most this spring, and have there been any surprises among them?
Todd Pletcher: Well, I think the horse that’s developed the most this spring would be Verrazano simply because he was unstarted at two and didn’t break his maiden until January 1st. And we had very high hopes for him prior to his maiden win, and even bigger hopes after that race, but just still to think that’s he’s coming from, you know, an unstarted maiden and then he woke up on New Years Day to possibly the Derby favorite in this short of time is a tremendous amount of development in a short period of time. And the fact that he’s been able to win from 6.5 to a mile to a mile and a sixteenth at Tampa and a mile and an eighth at Aqueduct is—speaks volumes for the quality that he has and, you know, just the enormous talent that he has. So that has been a—not a total surprise just because of the way he trained prior to that, but I think it’s very rare that you see it happen. And, I’m sorry, I don’t know if I answered the rest of your questions.
Debbie Arrington: Well, that’s good that he was—that it wasn’t, you know, that—well, out of the other ones, did any of them surprise you how quickly they’ve developed here?
Todd Pletcher: Not so much a surprise I wouldn’t really say. You know, I think Overanalyze, for example, he was very successful as a two year old, and, you know, any time that you have a horse like him win the Remsen in a mile and an eighth in November, you’re certainly hoping that, you know, that they’re going to be able to continue on and train well at three. And Palace Malice showed quality last year as a two year old and won impressively at Saratoga and trained really well all winter. I guess Charming Kitten’s sort of gotten here a little bit, you know, in an unorthodox way by never really having run on the dirt, but, you know, we were always impressed by the way he trained and the way he’d run, and he’s a proven stake horse prior to—he was third in the Blue Grass. And so I can’t really say that any of them have surprised us. Revolutionary we saw a lot of talent early on, and it took him a little while longer to break his maiden, but once he did, he’s just been brilliant since then. So like I said, no huge surprises, but at the same time, you have to be fortunate to have them continue their development throughout the spring.
Ryan Goldberg: I was just wondering if you could give your opinion on the point system this year, and if your opinion’s changed at all along the way, if there’s any changes you’d like to see, and if it’s affected your plan A at all for your horses?
Todd Pletcher: Well, I mean I think for the first time that it’s been put in that it’s actually gone pretty smoothly. I think I would have some of the same concerns that I had when it was first announced and I do still believe that there needs to be a slight more—slightly a more emphasis on two year old racing. And in particular, I think the Breeders’ Cup should be adjusted to a slightly higher level and possibly races like the Champagne and the CashCall Futurity should maybe carry a little more weight than they do. But, you know, overall I think the system has worked very well. I think possibly some tweaks there and something probably has to be looked at that would allow, you know, a filly a little bit of a shot to get in and without having to step out against colts possibly before that. But overall I think it’s gone very smoothly.
And as far as the management of our horses, I mean more or less, I’ve tried to approach it the same way I did when graded earnings were the criteria, and, you know, most of the races were pretty much the same with a few exceptions. And I think at the end of the day it’s probably going to work out where pretty much all the horses that would’ve had an upgraded earnings would still have enough points.
Ron Flatter: You’ve got a few candidates who could be chasing the lead. Do you put any on the lead or do you let somebody else set the pace?
Todd Pletcher: Well, I think some of that will be determined by, you know, the final field and the post positions. But on first rush I don’t think there’s what I would consider to be any really confirmed frontrunners, so it’ll be interesting to kind of see how this race unfolds. You know, I think a horse like Verrazano will certainly be a pace factor in the race and could possibly be on the lead depending on how the post positions sort out.
Ron Flatter: Why would or wouldn’t Verrazano get a mile and a quarter? That’s a question that we’re hearing a bit lately. I mean what’s your confidence that he will and what are your concerns that he won’t?
Todd Pletcher: Based on the way the horse has trained for us all winter, he’s given me the impression that I’ve never really seen the bottom of him, so that’s very encouraging to me, and the horse that has won at a mile and sixteenth at Tampa, which is a pretty demanding surface and then he (inaudible) got a mile and an eighth at Aqueduct, you know, is also very encouraging. And the one thing I really liked about his breeze here on Sunday was the gallop out on the 141 and 3 which suggests to me that he not only handles the track pretty well, but he’s got quite a bit of stamina in him. So, you know, I’m very confident. I’d say I’m as confident in him getting the mile and a quarter as anyone else in the race, but I think it’s probably a slight concern for everyone.
Ron Flatter: And forgive me if I’ve missed this, do you have a rider for Charming Kitten?
Todd Pletcher: We have not confirmed a rider yet, no.
Jason Franks: On the topic of Derby fever among owners, do you think Ken Ramsay has a bigger case of it than most you’ve seen, or is he just maybe a little more vocal about it?
Todd Pletcher: I’d say he’s definitely more vocal about it, but I mean I honestly think most owners that are in the business at least have that Derby dream, and I think it’s a, you know, motivating factor for a lot of people I mean why they buy race horses. So, you know, I think it’s great when someone is in the business of owning horses and they get excited about having a horse that’s in the Kentucky Derby. It’s great for the game.
Jason Franks: And your thoughts of him, you know, trying dirt for the first time?
Todd Pletcher: Well, I’m going to be very interested to see how he breezes over the track here on Sunday. I think I’ve liked the way he’s been galloping over the track, and, you know, a lot of his breezes this winter were on the dirt and breezed in company with Overanalyze before Overanalyze won the Arkansas Derby, and they had a good solid five furlong breeze in company. So—and he’s shown us that he’s handled the dirt well with his pedigree. You know, the natural thing was to run him on the turf for awhile, but I think as he’s continued to physically develop he’s gotten better and better on the dirt as well.
Bill Finley: Todd, the primary criticism of the Derby point system, and you’ve brought this up, is that it doesn’t give fillies a chance unless they run in a prep against males. Had Dreaming of Julia been able to run and she would’ve been under the old system, have you thought about—have you talked to the owners about whether you would’ve run her in the Kentucky Derby? And then fast forwarding a little bit, if she is lucky enough to win the Oaks, does she perhaps do the same thing Rachel Alexandra did and go Oaks, Preakness?
Todd Pletcher: Well, we haven’t really had a discussion about it, and I think just because we didn’t need to. You know, we knew as long as the Derby is going to overfill, and generally does, that it wasn’t really anything that was up for debate. I mean based on the way that she won the Florida Oaks—Gulfstream Oaks I guess it’s called—and ran quite a bit faster in the Florida Derby on the same card, naturally if the option was there we would’ve probably had a discussion about it. But right now we’re just focused on the Oaks and getting her ready for that and hoping she continues to train as well as she is at the moment. But as far as what would happen after the Oaks, I would be a bit surprised if she’s the type of filly that we would bring back in two weeks to the Preakness. She’s a—she’s not a huge filly. Size-wise she’s a medium-sized filly and seems to appreciate a little bit of time between a race, and so we’ll just focus on the Oaks for now and go from there.
Bill Finley: Todd, a question about Verrazano. One of my cohorts is a big fan, and he argues with me that—he calls the Wood Memorial a maintenance race, because you already knew you were in the Derby, you already knew you had a very talented horse. And Eddie Plesa earlier on this call talked about the same sort of thing in the Florida Derby, where maybe he didn’t ask for absolutely everything. Now even though Verrazano won, was there something more in the tank, and was that somewhat of a maintenance race, obviously keeping the Kentucky Derby and trying to peak in that race in mind?
Todd Pletcher: Well, we felt like the Wood Memorial was a very important race. The fact that we had 50 points in our back pocket certainly made it, you know, a little less of a must win race for us as opposed to some of the other horses in the race really needed the points. But, no, we wanted to win. To me, more than anything, the way that the Wood Memorial unfolded, it was sort of a strangely run race. There wasn’t much pace on, and to his credit he was able to relax and sit back off of a pretty slow pace. But then he sort of made a couple of different moves during the running of the race, which I think is always difficult for a horse to do. But the bottom line to me is he finished the last three furlongs in 36 and 2 and it was a mile and an eighth race, and that was key moving forward. So I think we got an important Grade 1 win under his belt, and another mover forward and another stretch out in distance, and hopefully that foundation that he’s gotten in the last two races in particular sets him up well for this.
Van Cushny: Yes, I have a question that’s very similar to the one that Mr. Finley just asked. And, Todd, could you please talk about the new point system and how it has or has not affected your plans with Dreaming of Julia? And before you answer, I would note that her race in the Florida Oaks on March 30th generated a buyer speed figure of 114, which is off the charts compared to the buyers that the colts and the geldings have earned so far this year, so conventional wisdom would say in previous years there would be a fair amount of speculation as to how she would do if she were to run in the Derby.
Todd Pletcher: Well, you know, after her race in the Davona Dale we thought she ran a good second but it wasn’t a monstrous effort, and at that point, you know, we kind of continued on the path towards the Kentucky Oaks. So we didn’t think at that point of running in the Florida Derby another colt or open prep race that would gain points into the Derby. So, you know, I think that that’s one of the potential flaws with the point system is it—if you are in fact thinking about running the—a filly in the Derby, you have to make that decision perhaps a little sooner than you’d really like and step out and run against colts. And, you know, basically your concern about that would be the—say if you didn’t run as well as you wanted, you could potentially not get enough points to get into the Oaks or potentially (inaudible) so that it could compromise your chances to the Oaks. So I think that’s something that we’ll probably see the Derby Points Committee look at and possibly make a change to, but we shall see.
Van Cushny: So then it’s fair to say that you’d like to see the new point system changed to allow fillies to run in the Derby without first facing boys?
Todd Pletcher: That’s just a guess on my part. I don’t have any knowledge of that. That would just be a guess that they’d…
Van Cushny: Oh no, your opinion. I was just asking if that’s your position or your opinion.
Todd Pletcher: Yes, I think there should be something that allows, you know, an exceptional effort like she had to put you in a position to at least have the option.
Van Cushny: That would make two of us. I also happen to think that turf horses or turf races ought to count towards the Derby as well. But in any event, good luck in the Derby.
Beth Harris: Looking back at Uncle Mo and Eskendereya, is there anything from either of those experiences that you’ve drawn on to prepare your current Derby crop?
Todd Pletcher: Well, I think, you know, as anyone that’s been around horses a lot you’re always concerned about things that can go wrong. And in Eskendereya’s case, you know, we were blessed with him and the enormous talent he had. We were also blessed with Super Saver in the same year. So, you know, I think sometimes the good comes with the bad, and unfortunately for Eskendereya he had a career-ending injury that probably never allowed everyone to see how brilliant he truly was. But who knows on a sloppy track that day how things would’ve turned out. And the Uncle Mo thing was just such an unusual situation. With all the horses that we’ve had over the years, we’ve never had a horse with the same physical issues that he had, and that particular case was just something that were battling for a while and just unfortunately the only solution to it was to stop and give him some time off and despite, you know, efforts to try to correct it every other possible way. But, you know, I think you try to learn from everything you see and hopefully improve on it, but this particular year I don’t know that any—that those two cases apply to any of the horses we have here.
Beth Harris: Did either of those leave you with any—just a kind of lingering sense of unease especially this time of year?
Todd Pletcher: I think I live every day with that same uneasiness, whether it’s before the Derby or before the Travers or before the Breeders’ Cup. I think that’s part of life as a trainer.
Dick Downey: Todd, you mentioned that the Wood was a strangely run race. Was there anything you believe John Velazquez could have or should’ve done differently during the running of the race? Were you looking for Verrazano to be more dominant than he was?
Todd Pletcher: I was tickled to death with the result, and, no, I’m not going to be critical in any way of Johnny’s ride. The bottom line is he put the horse in a very good position and won the race.
Eric Wing: Todd, I can’t remember what you did in ’07, which was the last time you saddled five, but how does it work in the paddock at Derby time? Do you have four assistants saddling one each, or are you going to kind of run from stall to stall?
Todd Pletcher: I was able to saddle all five in 2007, and one of the things about the Derby is you’re in the paddock a long, long time, so it gives everyone plenty of time to saddle—I don’t know how many you could saddle, but there’s never been a shortage of time in there that’s for sure.
Eric Wing: Okay. Well, Todd, condolences in advance for your four guaranteed losers on Derby Day, and wish you the best of luck in hoping Derby victory number two comes your way. Thanks so much for all your patience in answering all these questions and filling up the notebooks, and good luck a week from Saturday.
Todd Pletcher: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.
Eric Wing: Thank you. That’s Todd Pletcher. He will—looks like he will saddle five, maybe a sixth if all his horses stay sound and healthy between now and May 4th. And we, of course, will be watching on NBC as the telecast of the 139th Derby is brought to us on the first Saturday in May.
Well, that’ll bring an end to today’s call. I’d like to thank all three of our guests, Doug O’Neill, Eddie Plesa, and Todd Pletcher. Also, of course, I’d like to thank Michelle and Shelly working the controls at teleconference central, and also, of course, our producer here in New York Joan Lawrence. We’ll be with you again—oh, by the way, don’t forget about the transcript and the podcast of this call at NTRA.com. We’ll be with you again on Thursday—not Tuesday, but Thursday May 9th, the usual time, 1 p.m. Eastern, and at that time we’ll be taking a look at the 138th Preakness Stakes. Glad you could be with us today to discuss the Derby. Hope you can join us again on May 9th and we’ll talk about the Preakness. Thanks very much.