Barn Tour: Pletcher focuses on Kentucky Derby hopefuls

Barn Tour: Pletcher focuses on Kentucky Derby hopefuls
Photo: Eclipse Sportswire

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Delray Beach, Fla.

Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher, coming off an unprecedented eighth Eclipse Award as leading trainer in North America, has a laser focus on his leading 3-year-olds at this time of year.

“From Feb. 1 to March 15,” he said, “it’s a critical stage.”

Pletcher is locked in on the Kentucky Derby, of course, in his desire to add to previous winners Super Saver (2010) and Always Dreaming (2017). It also is not too soon for him to start to gauge which of his regally bred 3-year-olds can go the arduous mile-and-a-half distance in the Belmont Stakes. He has won the “Test of a Champion” four times, starting with the history-making filly Rags to Riches (2007) and continuing with Palace Malice (2013), Tapwrit (2017) and Mo Donegal (2022).

Pletcher took Horse Racing Nation on a Barn Tour that focused on his top Derby hopefuls:

Forte. As 2-year-old champion, this dark bay son of Violence clearly tops the list. Pletcher is slowly ramping him up and likes what he sees so far at Palm Beach Downs. “He’s done very well,” the trainer said. “He’s a horse that, very much like his sire, he’s an efficient mover. He’s got a great disposition.”

Owned by Repole Stable and St. Elias Stable, Forte was given a very strong foundation at 2. He graduated at first asking at Belmont Park last spring before taking down three successive Grade 1s, the Hopeful at Saratoga and then the Breeders’ Futurity and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, both at Keeneland.

That makes Pletcher completely comfortable in planning only two preps for Forte, beginning with the $400,000 Fountain of Youth (G2) at nearby Gulfstream Park on March 4. After that, the path is uncertain. “We’ll see if the Florida Derby (April 1) will be his final prep or if we go back to Keeneland (for the Blue Grass on April 8). Obviously, he likes the track there,” the trainer said.

Whatever the plan, Forte will be bucking a considerable amount of history. Street Sense, who won the Kentucky Derby in 2007, and Nyquist, who brought home the roses in 2016, are the only Juvenile winners to go on to capture the Derby since the inception of the Breeders’ Cup at old Hollywood Park in 1984.

Forte has yet to be pressed for speed in any of his three drills since he returned to the work tab.

Kingsbarns. Pletcher liked everything about this colt’s winning debut at one mile Jan. 14 at Gulfstream completing the distance in 1:39.18. “I thought it was very professional,” Pletcher said. “It’s difficult to win at a mile first time out. It’s even more difficult to do it with the trip he got, which was sitting in behind horses and making a move to split horses at the top of the stretch. It was one of those races where he was not only able to win but got a lot of good experience from it.” The son of Uncle Mo, by the Tapit mare Lady Tapit, was purchased by Spendthrift Farm for $800,000 as a 2-year-old in training.

Tapit Trice. It should be on to much bigger things for this handsome son of Tapit after he demolished his competition by eight lengths in a one-mile allowance optional claimer Feb. 4 at Gulfstream. He was ridden out by Luis Saez as the easiest of winners. Tapit Trice showed he could handle a wet track when he broke his maiden in his second attempt on a sloppy, sealed surface Dec. 17 at Aqueduct. Whisper Hill Farm went to $1.3 million for him as a yearling. Bred by Gainesway Stable, which retained a financial interest, he is out of the stakes-winning Dunkirk mare Danzatrice.

Shesterkin. Named for the New York Rangers’ sharp goaltender, Shesterkin ran a distant second to stablemate Tapit Trice on Feb. 4 at Gulfstream, but he was four lengths clear of the rest of the field. Another son of Violence, he produced what Pletcher described as a “promising debut” when he rolled gate to wire at seven furlongs on New Year’s Eve at Gulfstream. He is out of the Street Cry mare Freedom Star.

Atomically. This daughter of Girvin will be a candidate for the April 1 Gulfstream Oaks after she overcame a slow start to be third in the Feb. 4 Forward Gal Stakes (G3) at seven furlongs. She was trained by Jose Pinchin through the first three starts of her career but was transferred to Pletcher after a private purchase. She finished seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies after being transferred to her new barn in her first start for Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, Michael Bernard and Harry Colburn.

Chocolate Gelato. With that name, it will come as no surprise that this daughter of Practical Joke is owned by Mike Repole, a long-time client. She showed she might be a Kentucky Oaks (G1) candidate when she won the Frizette last October, but Pletcher now views her as a “summer filly.” She finished a distant 12th in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, and that was not all of the bad news. “She came out of the Breeders’ Cup a little worse for wear, so she’s just starting to get back in training,” Pletcher said. He hopes to have her back in form for the Saratoga meet.

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