LOUISVILLE, Ky. - On one hand, Todd Pletcher is doing exactly what is expected of him - which only adds to the absurdity of the University of Arizona grad's situation.
Ever since the five-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer brought four horses to his first Kentucky Derby in 2000, racing fans have come to expect nothing less than an annual juggling act from his barn. Only twice in Pletcher's 12 prior Derby outings has he had just one contender to saddle; on three occasions he has invaded the paddock with four or more starters.
Considering his more-is-more past, no one should be bowled over to see a lineup of five starters from Pletcher's barn for Saturday's Kentucky Derby.
The really scary part of Pletcher's brigade this season is that his numbers aren't even the most overwhelming part. Despite losing juvenile champion Shanghai Bobby and Grade I winner Violence to injury along the way, Pletcher himself has a hard time arguing against his current bunch as his best Derby representation ever.
The real strengths of the 2013 Todd Squad are the figures and depth behind their collective achievements. Pletcher is the first trainer to have the winners of the Grade I Wood Memorial (Verrazano), Grade I Arkansas Derby (Overanalyze) and Grade II Louisiana Derby (Revolutionary) all on his Derby roster. He's also got the second- and third-place finishers in the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes, Palace Malice and Charming Kitten.
"Best ever," Pletcher said when asked how his current Derby roster compares to those past, flashing a grin that suggested if he was exaggerating, it wasn't by much. "It's like my dad always tells me every year in Ocala (Fla.), he says, 'I think we've got the best group we've ever had'. And I say, 'You said that last year and the year before.'
"We all know that just having five doesn't also mean that you're going to win the race. But all that being said, you know, we absolutely couldn't be more happy with the cards we're holding."
Pletcher is far from the only trainer who has both large numbers to work with and owners who give him quality stock. Still, it is his barn's Derby-centric intangibles that have all but eliminated the yearly question of if he'll have a prospect.
"I think it's a focal point (of Pletcher's), and I think anybody that has been in the Derby consistently, it becomes something they think about year round," said Elliott Walden, president of WinStar Farm, which owns Revolutionary. "There is a reason guys like Pletcher ... have horses in it every year because you have to push a little bit, and you have to give and take, but you have to keep moving the train forward.
"It all starts in September, October. You don't get to the first of March and think, 'I'm going to run in the Kentucky Derby.'"
By virtue of his unbeaten record in four career starts, Verrazano stands as Pletcher's highest profile contender. The son of More Than Ready has countered the Derby stigma of not having raced as a juvenile by putting together a string of brilliant wins at three tracks over distances from 6 1/2 furlongs to his three-quarter length victory in the Wood Memorial.
"He's shown us he is a special horse early on," Pletcher said. "It's very rare to see a horse accomplish what he has in a short period of time. He's been able to handle everything we've asked him to do, and he is a tremendous physical specimen."
• What: 139th Kentucky Derby
• When: 3:24 p.m. Saturday
• TV: Channel 4