LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It’s a question Todd Pletcher hears a lot around Kentucky Derby time: How does he juggle training four horses for the sport’s biggest race?
“I think you should try to treat it like a normal race,” he said Thursday.
Having four contenders in this year’s 19-horse field is not new for Pletcher. The trainer entered five in last year’s contest and four in 2010, including his only winner, Super Saver.
Logistically, he said, training that many horses at once is no big deal.
“We’re used to training a lot of horses,” he said. “In this case, we just have four that are running in the same race, but we’d still be training those four if they were running in different races.”
But the stakes are higher in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby (5:24 p.m., NBC), with a minimum $2 million purse and the chance to try for the Triple Crown. There’s also the hustle and bustle that comes with the event, which draws upwards of 150,000 to Churchill Downs.
Some paddock schooling will be needed, Pletcher said, but he said the big race did not add extra pressure. He said to “just do what you normally do and try to continue to do with the horses that arrived here, do the same thing that got them here.”
In his lineup are Danza, We Miss Artie, Vinceremos and Intense Holiday, the winner of the Risen Star and runner-up in the Louisiana Derby. Intense Holiday drew the No. 16 post, the same spot as last year’s winner, Orb.
Although Pletcher called the No. 7 post the perfect draw for We Miss Artie, owner Ken Ramsey conceded that “we may not have a dirt horse.”
We Miss Artie’s last start was in the Grade III Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park in Florence, Kentucky, where he won by a nose.
“If it wasn’t a special race like the Derby, I wouldn’t be shopping around for a mile and a quarter race on the dirt,” Ramsey said. “But it’s the Derby, one shot, he qualified to get in. I feel like I owe it to myself, my family and my horse to give him an opportunity to see what he can do.”
Pletcher’s best shot at a second Derby win could be with Arkansas Derby winner Danza, who will break from the gate next to the race favorite, California Chrome.
Danza will start from the No. 5 post, moving from the No. 4 gate after Hoppertunity was scratched Thursday. Hoppertunity’s trainer, Bob Baffert, took him out of the race because of a left front foot issue.
Owners of Pablo Del Monte, the only also-eligible entered in the race, decided not to start him in the Derby, making it a 19-horse field. Because of the scratches, horses at gates 1 through 10 will shift out one post.
That puts California Chrome at No. 6. The favorite with 5-2 morning-line odds, the California-bred horse has won four straight stakes races, including the Santa Anita Derby. Jockey Victor Espinoza will ride him for trainer Art Sherman.
Louisiana-bred Vicar’s in Trouble also gets a little farther from the rail, starting at post 2 instead of the No. 1 spot. But the shift might not make much of a difference if Vicar’s in Trouble is not able to break ahead quickly.
“You start on an angle, so when you run up there about a hundred yards, you’ve got to get over,” said Ramsey, who also owns Vicar’s in Trouble, after he drew the first spot. “And if they won’t let you over, you get squeezed back.”
Still, Ramsey said, the inside could be a good spot if the horse can break quickly without using too much energy.
“We’re kind of looking at it that the cup is half-full instead of half-empty,” he said. “The closest way home is on the rail. So we’ve got the rail; we don’t have to cross over the 20 hole or some place.”
New Orleans’ Dallas Stewart, the trainer whose Commanding Curve drew post 17, said the position was not a factor — “I just didn’t want 1, 2 or 20,” he said. Stewart also noted that the inside has a lot of speed, which he sees as a plus for Commanding Curve.
The 11/4-mile distance might be a bit of a test for Commanding Curve, Stewart said. But “hopefully he’ll have a clean break this time,” he added, referring to when the horse was bumped at the break in the Louisiana Derby.
Lafayette native Calvin Borel, who rode Super Saver to victory for Pletcher in 2010, also will start on the outside, with Ride On Curlin, at post No. 19. Trained by Winnsboro native Billy Gowan, Ride On Curlin was the runner-up to Danza in the Arkansas Derby last month.
“The way they angle these gates, I told Billy, from the last few races, that the winners have been coming from that last gate,” owner Daniel Dougherty said. “And the way it lined up, all the come-from-behind horses are in the second gate more than the first gate. So we can kind of gauge ourselves where we need to be with that group of horses and not worry so much about the front-runners.”