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Longley’s Lead Up: Pletcher dominates Derby prep season

April 19, 2018

By: Rob Longley for

TORONTO, April 19, 2018 – Todd Pletcher would trade much of an incredible March and April for success on the first Saturday of May, but the reigning Kentucky Derby winning trainer sure isn’t complaining.

To say the Hall of Fame horseman had a dominant run during the Derby prep season would be a massive understatement, a torrid run of success capped with Magnum Moon’s victory in last weekend’s Arkansas Derby.

Magnum Moon winning the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. (Coady Photography)

Pletcher is the trainer of four of the top five Derby contenders (based on points earned on the road to the big race) and will head to Churchill Downs loaded with firepower never before seen from one trainer.

“It’s hard to imagine having a better month,” said Pletcher, who captured the 2017 Run for the Roses with Always Dreaming. “We’re blessed to have the equine and human talent to make it happen. Hopefully everyone stays healthy the next three weeks and we’ll fire our best shots at Churchill Downs.”

Those shots come from multiple slots in his shedrow, led by unbeaten Magnum Moon, who tops the Derby points list with 150. But the son of Malibu Moon will be joined in Kentucky by Florida Derby winner Audible, Louisiana Derby champ Noble Indy and Wood Memorial victor Vino Rosso.

Each of the four bring considerable credentials and each will have serious backers. In fact, handicapping the Pletcher foursome may be one of the biggest challenges for those betting the opening jewel of the Triple Crown.

Back to Magnum Moon for a moment. The colt, who began his career in January, will have to withstand the curse of Apollo (no horse has won the Derby without a two-year-old start since 1882). There was some concern when he drifted out in the Oaklawn Park stretch that the greenness would be a factor but Pletcher, for one, believes what he learned from it could take him a long way.

“I was very pleased with the effort,” Pletcher said. “He showed us yet another dimension by going to the lead. I was a little concern he drifted late, but he was pulling away from some nice horses.”


The celebrity factor for the swanky private suites at Churchill Downs added a serious name this week when flamboyant New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski bought a share of the England-based colt who was named after him.

While details weren’t released, Gronkowski the football player is said to have bought a “substantial stake” in Gronkowski the horse.

“We are very excited to have this talented racehorse running in the Derby and to have Rob Gronkowski join our team,” Tom Ludt, the director of Phoenix Thoroughbreds said in a release. “His involvement only adds to our growing credentials worldwide and can help us introduce the best of horse racing to a whole new audience.”

Trained by Jeremy Noseda, Gronkowski earned his spot in the starting gate by finishing first in the European Road to the Kentucky Derby Series.

And the fun-loving former Super Bowl champ is expected to bring a rather boisterous entourage along for the ride.


The final race (and one of the lesser regarded late preps) to finalize the points race saw My Boy Jack capture the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland which gets the Keith Desormeaux trainee into the field. Notable for Canadian race fans was the massive runner-up finish in the Lexington by trainer Mark Casse’s Telekinesis, who was just caught at the wire. The Canadian-bred won’t be Derby bound but is the 2018 Queen’s Plate Winterbook favourite … One final note on Gronkowski, who on paper will be among the longer shots in the Derby: Serious handicappers will love the fact that the hype this colt will take untold thousands of dollars in hunch-play, casual wagering cash.


1. Justify, Trainer Bob Baffert
Still going with this late-blooming phenom at the top because we like the connections and the way he moves. Not to hedge, but this is shaping up as one of the most competitive Derby fields in decades so he gets this not with some degree of tentativeness.

2. Mendelssohn, Trainer Aidan O’Brien
The UAE Derby champ was arguably the most impressive winner in his final prep. He’ll have a legion of doubters, however, because of the fact he has yet to train or race in North America and he isn’t expected to arrive in Kentucky until late.

3. Good Magic, Trainer Chad Brown
The only colt in the top five point-getters not to be trained by Pletcher, he has done little wrong, though hasn’t faced the stoutest of competition. Those who follow the training patterns of Brown, however, love the progression angle and suspect he’ll be sitting on a career race on the first Saturday in May.

4. Audible, Trainer Todd Pletcher
We could put any (and all) of the Pletcher quartet on our list and each could arguably rank higher. But for now, we’ll stick with this one who is the darling of numbers players. His Florida Derby win benefited from the speed in the race, but he may get that in Kentucky as well.

5. Magnum Moon, Trainer Todd Pletcher
Falling slightly into the trap of remembering what we’ve seen most recently, the mere fact that he’s a Grade 1 winner and undefeated makes it silly to leave him out of the top five.

Follow Longley’s weekly column on chronicling the path to the Kentucky Derby, set for May 5 at Churchill Downs, and be sure to get your tickets to celebrate the first jewel of the U.S. Triple Crown with us at Woodbine’s exclusive Derby Day Party featuring fabulous food, fashion and entertainment in the Trackside Tent.
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