Trainer Todd Pletcher not only has four contenders for Kentucky Derby 147, but four of the horses in the Derby field are by stallions who were trained by the seven-time Eclipse Award winner. Coglianese photo.

Hail to the Kingmaker: Pletcher’s Influence Runs Deep in Kentucky Derby Field

By Alicia Hughes

In hindsight it seems silly to have entertained a notion that flew so wildly in the face of conventional wisdom. Yet, two months out from the 147th edition of the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve (G1), it was beginning to look like the man who has sent more horses to the starting gate for the 10-furlong classic than any trainer in history wouldn’t have a representative when the field went to post on May 1.

There is a reason though that Todd Pletcher has a record seven Eclipse Awards for Outstanding Trainer to go along with his two victories in the first leg of the Triple Crown. And while he may been blanked to that point heading in the final stretch of Derby qualifying races, the soon-to-be Hall of Famer in the span of two weeks managed to uncork not one, not two, not three, but four contenders now slated to start in Saturday’s test. 

The white-bridled quartet of Known Agenda, Dynamic One, Bourbonic, and Sainthood will bring the already record number of Kentucky Derby starters for Pletcher to 59 as they individually seek to give their iconic caretaker his third triumph in the Run for the Roses. Staunch of a lineup as that is, Pletcher’s impact on this year’s Kentucky Derby field is one that goes beyond his own squad and highlights the breadth and depth of his program’s success.

Including his protégé Sainthood, a son of Taylor Made Farm’s Mshawish, four horses scheduled to start in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby are by stallions that were trained by North America’s all-time leader in earnings. The Bob Baffert-trained Medina Spirit is a son of Castleton Lyons stallion Protonico – a multiple graded stakes winner under Pletcher’s care – while Like the King, trained by Wesley Ward, is by 2013 Belmont Stakes (G1) winner and Three Chimneys stallion Palace Malice with the Vicky Oliver-trained Hidden Stash a son of 2014 Florida Derby (G1) victor Constitution, who stands at WinStar Farm.

Lest anyone think those numbers are a statistical anomaly, the general sire list and rosters of some of the top breeding operations support the fact that few trainers are as adept at developing future stallions as Pletcher. Seven of the current stallions in WinStar Farm’s stud barn – Always Dreaming, Audible, Carpe Diem, Constitution, More Than Ready, Outwork, and Speighstown – are former Pletcher trainees while Coolmore’s Ashford Stud has two Pletcher graduates in Uncle Mo and Munnings. Through April 28, five of the stallions in the top 20 of the general sire list – Speightstown, Munnings, Constitution, Uncle Mo, and Liam’s Map – were all trained by the finalist and sure-fire selection for the 2021 Hall of Fame class.

Sainthood, seen here working in company with Known Agenda at Churchill Downs April 23, 2021, is one of four Kentucky Derby contenders by stallions who were trained by Todd Pletcher. Churchill Downs/Coady Photography.

“I don’t honestly have a great answer for it. But it is something we’re very proud of,” Pletcher said of his kingmaker prowess. “Also, the longevity of some of the stallions (is a source of pride). Going back, I remember when (WinStar stallion) More Than Ready had his first foals and we were so excited about seeing them and seeing them get to the races, and he’s still going strong today. So yeah, we’ve been blessed to be able to train a lot of good horses, but I think it shows we have a quality program that the horses are able to go on and reproduce themselves which is something I think is great.”

Given that the science of breeding is built around finding the ideal genetic mix, the idea that a training program could influence pedigree would seem a bridge too far. While Pletcher does have the advantage of often getting blue-blooded youngsters from his clients to develop, the way he manages those runners and is able to get them to perform in the races most desirable on a stallion’s resume is one reason his colts get the support they do once they hit the breeding shed.

 “There has got to be something to it because he does have a lot of stallions that are successful – not just a lot of stallions, but a lot of stallions that are successful,” said Elliott Walden, president, CEO, and racing manager of WinStar Farm, which co-owns Sainthood. “I think it’s a combination of pedigree, the horses that he gets with pedigree, and also his ability to manage a career and give them the opportunity to get better mares when they go to stud and then perform in that arena as well.

“I think you can take the best horse in the world and if he doesn’t get a quality book of mares – and it doesn’t have to be the best book, it just has to be good enough. There is a level where then that stallion can have the opportunity. And then you’ll see a Constitution rise to the top or a Speightstown rise to the top, or the horses that he has at Coolmore as well.”

In an industry where precocity is treasured, Pletcher’s exceptional juvenile program also plays a role in the setting his colts up for second-career success. 

The brilliance Uncle Mo showed during his championship 2-year-old season in 2010 made the son of Indian Charlie one of the most sought-after stallion prospects despite the fact illness kept him out of the follow year’s Triple Crown races. Sure enough, Uncle Mo has passed on that early ability, setting a record for freshman-sire earnings and being represented in his first crop by 2016 Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist.

“I think one thing that Todd does well is he has a 2-year-old and 3-year-old program. I think that is what people want to breed to,” Walden said. “I think by getting them out early, having the ability to get them to the races and manage their careers, he gives them the best chance at stud. Obviously, the more stallions you put in the barn the more successful stallions you’re going to get out of it because you have more opportunity.  And he focuses on developing stallions, he sees the big picture.”

The development of Known Agenda, the 6-1 third choice on the Kentucky Derby morning line, is a classic example of Pletcher molding a horse with a stallion’s pedigree into a proven commodity on the track that will catch the eye – and pocket books – of the commercial marketplace. 

A son of top sire Curlin out of Grade 1-winner Byrama (GB), Known Agenda underachieved in his first four starts with just a maiden win to his credit. Following a disappointing fifth-place run in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs Feb. 6, Pletcher added blinkers to the chestnut colt and has seen nothing but progression since. After getting himself back on track with an allowing optional claiming victory at Gulfstream Park Feb. 26, Known Agenda took a big step forward when he drew clear in the stretch of the Grade 1 Curlin Florida Derby en route to a 2 3/4-length victory. 

“I think that he’s always shown us that he had talent and for a lot of the Curlin’s, time is their friend,” Pletcher said of Known Agenda. “We felt like we were maybe even a bit ahead of schedule but in the Sam Davis, he just put himself in a tough spot and dropped too far back. He was closing best of all in the race but he left himself an impossible task turning for home. 

“Putting the blinkers on him and getting the allowance race kind of got him going in the right direction and that kind of carried over to the Florida Derby. I always felt like he was a horse who time and distance was going to help. And he’s already had four races at 1 1/8-miles.”

Any additional shine that gets added to Pletcher’s historic resume at this point in his career qualifies simply as gaudy. The former assistant to Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas has long solidified his own case as one of the best conditioners to ever grace the industry, and his far-reaching influence has already proven it will resonate for generations to come. 

“There are a lot of trainers that get a lot of horses. But there are very few trainers that can get stallions,” Walden said of Pletcher. “And so, winning at the elite level and the Grade 1s and focusing on the Grade 1s puts his horses into the stud barn.”