Considering his unheralded 3-year-old colt Flower Alley jumped up and won the $500,000 Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park last Saturday, it's been a pretty tough week for Todd Pletcher.
With the Kentucky Derby just 35 days away, Pletcher, the 2004 Eclipse Award winning trainer, has been in scramble mode. His top Derby contender, Bandini, suffered a minor hoof bruise and had to be held out of today's $1 million Grade I Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. An outbreak of an infectious disease called "strangles" (streptococcal equi) at the Palm Meadows training center in Boynton Beach, Fla., left Pletcher and other trainers hustling to get their main horses on the next van out in case a quarantine stranded them there.
Meantime, in reaction to strangles, out-of-state tracks began mandating special veterinary certifications for horses shipping in from Florida, creating a nice paperwork headache.
"It's been one of those deals," Pletcher said with a sigh yesterday, speaking from Palm Meadows. "We haven't been affected by it so much, but some of these tracks aren't allowing some horses in. It might be an overreaction on some people's part."
With the enormous Pletcher outfit, however, there always is a Plan B and likely a Plan C, D and E. Of the 357 initial nominees to the Triple Crown this year, 35 came from Pletcher. So, with Bandini safely in a stall at Keeneland and now pointing toward the Blue Grass Stakes on April 16, Pletcher simply reached into his arsenal and selected Louisiana Derby runner-up Vicarage to represent him in the Florida Derby.
"We called an audible," Pletcher said.
Still, while the barn may be rich in talent, success when it counts most is not guaranteed. Despite his status as perhaps the top trainer in racing, Pletcher, 37, has never won a Triple Crown race, and it's going to be tough for him to win the Kentucky Derby with one from this batch.
Flower Alley has raced only three times, Bandini has his hands full in what is shaping up as a brutally tough Blue Grass, Harlington is out injured, and Pletcher's others either aren't quite ready or not good enough -- leaving the trainer little margin for error.
"If things go right, we could show up with the right horse," he said of the Kentucky Derby on May 7. "In the horse business, you're constantly changing agendas, and you've got to work around the horses. It's got to fall all right on the given day, and there's only so much you can do. You can't over-think it. You've got to let some things happen. A horse is going to get a cough along the way. If you stick too much to a schedule, you find yourself pressing the issue when you shouldn't."
High Fly Heads Florida Field
With Bandini and another top contender, Closing Argument, defecting from the Florida Derby, the million-dollar marquee event at Gulfstream Park looked briefly like it would produce a shriveled four- or five-horse field. Fortunately for management, a group of late arrivals boosted it to nine.
High Fly, the Nick Zito-trained winner of the Aventura and Fountain of Youth stakes at the track this winter, was installed as the 8-5 morning-line favorite. Another Zito runner, Noble Causeway, was made second choice at 3-1 with Pletcher's Vicarage at 6-1.
"You had a lot of people saying, 'I don't know if I can beat either of those two horses,' " track president-general manager Scott Savin said of Bandini and Closing Argument. "We had what we thought was a short, high-quality field. But you have one defection and people say, 'Hey, I'll take a shot.' That's horse racing; you change daily."
With Gulfstream Park in the midst of a massive rebuilding project this winter, management didn't need the extra aggravation caused by strangles.
Savin, however, has done everything he could think of to ease the worries of those racing at the track.
"We're sterilizing the starting gate between races with a one-to-20 mixture of Clorox to water," he said. "We have the gate crew and valets use hand sanitizer between each race. The van lines [for shipping horses] are disinfected every day. The stalls are being disinfected. We want to give everybody peace of mind, the owners and trainers."
Strangles is common to horses on farms, but less so at racetracks, said Larry Bramlage, chief surgeon at the Rood and Riddle equine hospital in Lexington, Ky.
"In and of itself, it's not a particularly virulent bacteria," Bramlage said, "but it colonizes the lymph nodes around the throat. It restricts the airways to the point horses would have trouble breathing."
Five horses at Palm Meadows were diagnosed with strangles, none, so far, at Gulfstream Park. Churchill Downs also suffered a recent outbreak with 19 positives reported.
"There's no danger to the horses," Savin said. "We've gone above and beyond with precautionary measures."