LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In the unpredictable world of horse racing, Todd Pletcher is as steady and predictable as they come.
It’s evident in the way the 47-year-old trainer goes about his business from his spotless barn at Churchill Downs. Amid the hubbub of Kentucky Derby week, Pletcher is steely cool, with not a gray hair out of place or a spot on his jacket with the popped collar he wears to ward off the morning chill.
The desktop in his small office a stone’s throw from the row of horse stalls is tidy. The workout, feed and grooming schedules of his four Derby horses is as organized as a military operation.
His habits are a direct reflection of his mentor, D. Wayne Lukas, a Hall of Fame trainer with four Derby wins to his credit. Lukas will saddle Mr. Z in Saturday’s 141st Derby, and then watch with pride as four of his former assistants try to beat him.
Pletcher’s four entries represent one-fifth of the expected 20-horse field. His top horse is Carpe Diem, whose owners paid $1.6 million to buy and could be the third choice in the wagering. His other contenders are Fountain of Youth winner Itsaknockout, Florida Derby winner Materiality and Louisiana Derby runner-up Stanford.
“Knock wood, they’re all doing good,” he said Tuesday.
This year’s four-member Todd Squad will give Pletcher 44 starters since 2000, leaving him five from breaking the record set by Lukas. Pletcher’s only win came in 2010 with Super Saver.
“It’s a race I would love to win every year, but it doesn’t encompass our whole year,” he said. “If you’d have said that at the age of 47 I’d have won a Kentucky Derby I would’ve told you a long time ago that I wouldn’t think that that could happen.”
Other former Lukas assistants taking aim Saturday are Mike Maker with International Star; Kiaran McLaughlin with Frosted; and first-time Derby trainer George Weaver with Tencendur.
“We got a great group of young guys out there,” said Lukas, who emphasizes discipline and attention to detail with his assistants.
Pletcher started out in the business as a groom working for Lukas during summers when he was still in college. After graduation, he went to work for Lukas full time in New York before taking out his trainer’s license in 1995.
Lukas set the bar in the sport when it comes to numbers — money won, Triple Crown races won and starters in major races. Pletcher has begun surpassing the man who at 79 is still getting on his pony to supervise morning workouts.
Pletcher owns seven Eclipse Awards as the nation’s top trainer and nine times he’s led the country in earnings, with a career total of $287,873,438.
Yet Pletcher never puts a number on his possible Derby entrants early in a given year.
“We’ll start to look at some of the prep races and try to decide which horses might fit which preps, and we’ll try to plan some of those things out a couple of months in advance,” he said. “There’s some cases where you plan things out months in advance and it doesn’t work, and there’s other ones that do work out, and there’s other ones you’ve got to play it as it comes and see when the horses are telling you they’re ready.”
Pletcher has had his share of tough luck when it comes to the Derby, most recently in 2011 when Uncle Mo had to be scratched with a rare liver disease and in 2012 when Shanghai Bobby was injured.
Still, he never appears flustered in the heat of the moment.
“I’d like to improve on our record and love to win it again,” he said. “But on May 3 I’ll wake up either way and try to go out and keep doing what we do the rest of the year.”