LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The Kentucky Derby must seem like an illusion to those who try so hard to win it. The harder you try, it seems, the less likely you are to have success
Once the Bob Baffert-D. Wayne Lukas domination ended in 2002, the Derby has become the domain of the previously anonymous - Barclay Tagg, John Servis, John Shirreffs, Michael Matz. None of those trainers had started a horse in the Derby until they won the last four.
You can try to buy it at the sales or by making a deal. You can breed your best to their best. You can train them just right. You can get the best jockey. You can do everything right. And finish 15th.
There is simply no other sporting endeavor like it, so tempting, so often futile. Yet, it stops nobody from trying. Some, like Roy and Pat Chapman, win the Derby when they aren't even trying. They bred their mare to a nice stallion, hoping for a horse that could win at Philadelphia Park. They got Smarty Jones.
Todd Pletcher is trying. America's dominant trainer has had 14 Derby starters this decade. None has won. He has started 41 horses in the Breeders' Cup. Two have won. He was 0-for-17 in the BC at Churchill Downs last November.
In 2006, Pletcher-trained horses won a record $26.8 million. But he did not win any of the races everybody watches. So, in a wider world, did it really happen?
Pletcher is the horse racing equivalent of Peyton Manning - all the records, none of the glory. Manning solved his problem.
This is, by far, Pletcher's best chance in the Derby. It is one thing to send out 30-1 and 50-1 shots. Pletcher has actually run second with two at those odds. This year, Pletcher's five - Cowtown Cat, Sam P., Scat Daddy, Circular Quay and Any Given Saturday - have combined to win 10 stakes, including the Illinois Derby (Cowtown Cat), the Florida Derby (Scat Daddy) and Louisiana Derby (Circular Quay). He's surrounding Kentucky and closing in on it.
Derby Day is so big, Helen Mirren will be at Churchill today. Actually, it's her alter ego, Queen Elizabeth II.
In 1957, the young queen attended a Maryland-North Carolina football game at Byrd Stadium in College Park, Md. That was big. This is bigger.
The queen is very much into horses. She owns 23 broodmares. In other, more recent visits to the United States, she has stayed with friend Will Farish, the former British ambassador, at his Lane's End Farm in Versailles, Ky., outside Lexington, an hour from Louisville.
It is unknown which horse the queen fancies in the Derby. She is said to be partial to superfectas when she heads to the windows. She certainly has the wherewithal to cover many of the combinations.
She might like one of Pletcher's horses. In bearing, the trainer might remind her of a young Prince Charles. Which could entice her to back one or more of the Todd Squad at the tote.
Stewart Elliott was the very anonymous leading rider at Philadelphia Park when he showed up at Churchill 3 years ago to ride Smarty Jones. The horse was unbeaten, but was dismissed by some because of the rider. Which was silly because this isn't jockey racing. It is horse racing. Elliott, on the fastest horse, rode a flawless race and Smarty did the rest.
Elliott no longer rides much at the Pha, although the slot money might lure him back. He has come back for his second Derby ride.
Unbeaten in the Derby, Elliott rides Teuflesberg, the most experienced horse in the race, with 15 starts. But he is not the fastest horse in the race. Or even close. In life, you get Smarty Jones only once.
Another Todd Pletcher product, Rags to Riches, easily beat the field in yesterday's 133rd Kentucky Oaks for 3-year-old fillies.