A year after saddling a record-tying five horses in the Derby, the nation's top trainer is likely down to his final two chances of running any 3-year-olds in America's greatest race on May 3.
Pletcher's hopes rest with Stonerside Stable's Cowboy Cal, a 15-1 outsider trained in Aiken by Tim Jones, and Monba in the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland today. Leading Derby contender Pyro is the even-money favorite, with Cool Coal Man the second choice in a tough 12-horse field also featuring Big Truck and Visionaire.
The trainer's colts not only need to run well, they must finish first or second to earn enough money to even qualify for the Derby if more than 20 horses are entered. Currently, Cowboy Cal ranks 39th on the money list with $57,660 and Monba is 41st with $50,000. Bob Black Jack is 20th at $180,000.
The Blue Grass winner earns $450,000; the runner-up $150,000.
"They have a ways to go, and that's why we're here to find out," Pletcher said on a rainy Friday morning in his office at Keeneland's barn 6. "If it happens, it happens. If it doesn't, my whole year doesn't revolve around the Kentucky Derby. Never won it before, so it doesn't change my life at this point."
Pletcher is 0-for-19 in the Derby. So far, the Derby trail has been dry even though Pletcher led all trainers with 31 nominees to the Triple Crown races. A year after winning nearly every prep race, the trainer hasn't won any.
Last week, he was shut out in the Wood Memorial, the Santa Anita Derby and Illinois Derby. His best finish with four starters was fourth by Aiken-based Dogwood Stable's Atoned in the Illinois Derby. Atoned remains Pletcher's highest-ranked prospect at No. 26 on the money list.
ARKANSAS DERBY: Isabull ran third in the Rebel Stakes last month and hasn't won a race since September.
That didn't stop trainer Steve Hobby from entering the colt in the Arkansas Derby.
"It's a wide-open race," Hobby said this week.
The morning-line choice is Gayego at 5-2, a nice horse but nobody's idea of a Kentucky Derby favorite.
This year's longest shots are Isabull and Tres Borrachos, both at 20-1.
Z Fortune is the second choice at 9-2, followed by King's Silver Son and Liberty Bull at 6-1. Dogwood Stable's Blackberry Road is 8-1.