At Kentucky Derby, Super Saver gives trainer Todd Pletcher first win in 25 tries

By Baltimore Sun
Sunday, May 2, 2010; D03

LOUISVILLE -- Todd Pletcher didn't want to watch the Kentucky Derby with friends. He didn't want to watch it with family. He didn't want to pick one of the four owners he was representing and sit with them.

In fact, he didn't even want to watch it live from the stands.

He wanted to watch it alone, on television, inside the Horseman's Lounge, halfway down the tunnel beneath the grandstands.

"Obviously I needed to change something," said Pletcher, who entered Saturday's 136th Run for the Roses 0 for 24, the most attempts without a victory in the history of the race.

And so as history unfolded Saturday at Churchill Downs, when jockey Calvin Borel made his move and guided Super Saver through the mud and along the rail to win the Kentucky Derby by a length and a half ahead of Ice Box and Paddy O'Prado, Pletcher was all by himself. He didn't have to share his emotions with anyone, which was exactly the way he preferred it.

Television cameras caught him throwing an emphatic fist pump, but by the time he emerged from the tunnel, the stoic and perpetually stone-faced Pletcher had once again wrestled control of his emotions.

The 43-year-old trainer, who learned the sport growing up in New Mexico from his father, J.J., typically has all the outward charisma of a Secret Service agent. But if you studied his face closely Saturday, you could see a hint of joy, and a touch of vindication.

"I think it will all soak in in a day or two," Pletcher said.

"Obviously it's a race I've dreamed my whole life of winning. Now that it's happened, I don't know what to feel or say. I wish I could wax poetically and tell you how it feels, but it's still kind of all soaking in."

Pletcher's preference for restraint is, of course, in direct contrast with Borel's exuberance and unbridled energy. In victory, he pounded his chest, blew kisses to his wife, Lisa, and soaked in the applause of an appreciative crowd of 155,803, the sixth largest in Derby history.

This was Borel's second straight Kentucky Derby victory, and his third win in the past four years, something no other jockey has accomplished. After the race, he even got a rare smile from Pletcher by declaring that he and Super Saver were going to go on and win the Triple Crown.

It turns out all the buttoned-downed Pletcher needed to win a Derby was a little dose of Borel.

"Calvin Borel is a great rider anywhere he goes, but for some reason at Churchill Downs, he's even five lengths better," Pletcher said.

When it rained hard Saturday morning, drenching the Churchill Downs track and turning the dirt into a thick soup, Super Saver -- owned by WinStar Farm -- seemed to emerge as the horse to beat, and not just because of his preference for running in the mud. It was also because of Borel, a fearless rider who knows how to summon that special magic required to win in a 20-horse field at his home track.

"I was born to ride," Borel said. "This is what I wanted to do all my life. Every jock's dream is to win the Derby. But I never dreamed I'd win three Derbys."

In some ways, Borel's trip with Super Saver mirrored his ride from last year on Mine That Bird. He laid off the pace, wove through traffic, hugged the rail and flew home for the win. He had to get around Conveyance, then cut inside of Noble's Promise, and once he did that, Super Saver was gone.

"Calvin is such an instinctive rider, I really didn't want to handcuff him with too many instructions," Pletcher said. "The only thing I told him was 'Ride him like you own him, and don't forget about getting a lead change.' He's an instinctive rider, and he knows this track so well. It was as simple as that."

It was also an emotional victory for WinStar, which is owned by Bill Casner and Kenny Troutt, who have been friends and business partners ever since they met in Omaha when each was 25 years old.

"I'm still in shock," Casner said. "Kenny and I said when we met we always dreamed of winning the Kentucky Derby. But at the time, did we really believe it? I think the answer would probably be no."

Trout said his 9-year-old daughter Savannah woke up this morning and told her father, with absolute conviction: "Dad, I think this is our year."

"As the horse was unloading, all I could think about is what she said," Trout said. "I just became so calm."

In the end, though, this victory belonged primarily to Pletcher, who experienced a roller coaster of emotions this week in Kentucky. On Sunday, he had to scratch the horse everyone believed gave him the best chance to win his first Derby, Eskendereya, who came to Louisville a heavy pre-race favorite but suffered a leg injury during training.

"A lot of times things work out for a reason," Pletcher said. "We were concerned the first couple days because Eskendereya didn't like the sloppy track. But this was Super Saver's day. He loved this racetrack. He liked it when he was fast, and liked it when it was muddy. Sometimes things just work out."

Pletcher confessed that the victory meant a lot to him because both his parents were alive to see it. J.J. Pletcher was a trainer and taught Pletcher the sport, and his mother Jerrie, one of his closest confidants.

"I saw them both after the race, and my mom said it was the greatest day of her life," Pletcher said. "They're both in their 70s, so I didn't want to let that opportunity slip away."

In the winner's circle, Borel was high-fiving anyone who would stick their hand out. Trout and Casner each took turns raising the trophy, but Pletcher was soon in the middle of the storm, silently starring at his feet. He ran his hands through his graying hair several times, and smiled a few times for the camera, but it was clear he wouldn't truly enjoy this victory until the party wound down, and he could appreciate it by himself.

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