To say that two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Todd Pletcher’s Derby prospects have had a chilly 2019 would be an understatement.
The man perhaps best known for unleashing an annual onslaught of talent on the Kentucky Derby trail has struggled to find even one horse strong enough to be considered a win candidate come the first Saturday in May. By the time that the calendar turns to March, Pletcher will have gone winless in the season’s preps for the first time in recent memory, but a recent debut winner at Oaklawn Park named Intrepid Heart may be the one who can right the ship for the entire operation.
Pletcher’s struggles have left handicappers and fans scratching their heads. It doesn’t appear to be for a lack of talent – frequent clients like Robert LaPenta, Repole Stable, Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, and Paul Pompa, Jr., have placed high-dollar prospects in Pletcher’s care. It doesn’t appear to be a result of facing top-tier foes – Moretti and Cutting Humor both recently faltered as the favorites in the Grade 3 Withers Stakes and the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes, respectively. Only So Alive has been able to finish in the money, but he completed his Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes effort over 11 lengths behind the winner in third.
The Southwest day was not a total loss, though, for the trainer who shipped a small group from his Florida base to Arkanas (including Coal Front, who won Saturday’s Grade 3 Razorback Handicap for older males). Six races before his stablemate finished a disappointing seventh in the headlining event, Intrepid Heart gave Pletcher a reason for hope. Taking the lead early, the son of Tapit drew off down the stretch in ultra-impressive fashion to win the mile-long event by nearly 8 lengths.
“Very, very pleased,” Pletcher said of the performance. “It’s not something we usually do, shipping an unstarted maiden somewhere, but just felt like he was getting ready to go and the Gulfstream options were going to be 6 furlongs, which I felt like were a little too short. It’s either that or you wait a couple of weeks until 1 mile and 1/16. With the 1-mile race there, we felt like he was ready to go. Since we had some other horses ship in, decided to go forward with that.”
Pletcher’s modus operandi has been to send maiden winners to allowance events for their next starts, but with chances for earning Derby points growing slimmer by the week, he may be forced to aggressively place Intrepid Heart for his next start. His owners, Robert and Lawanna Low, consider Oaklawn Park their home track, so Intrepid Heart could likely return for the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes and/or the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby.
“I think it’s a wait and see,” Pletcher said regarding Intrepid Heart’s next race. “I’m not sure that we’ll jump into a stake just yet, but at the same time, we won’t rule anything out.”
One thing seems to be for sure: if Pletcher is going to make the 2019 Churchill Downs starting gate, Intrepid Heart will be the one to take him there.