by Michael Adolphson
It is difficult to ever consider trainer Todd Pletcher a longshot in a Grade 1 affair, but that is the situation in Saturday's Grade 1 Kentucky Derby - though it should not worry his faithful much.
When Starlight Racing's Cutting Humor and Wertheimer et Frere's Spinoff - 15th and 19th on the Kentucky Derby points standings - start in the $3 million showpiece for the multiple Eclipse Award-winning conditioner, they are in good company in their high (30-1 morning-line, respectively) odds.
While Pletcher has had sustained successes with well-bet favorites at the top level, he has also made his mark with horses in the Classics who had been overlooked.
In 2001, the Pletcher-trained Invisible Ink was second in the Derby at 55-1. In 2004, his Limehouse was fourth at 41-1, and two years later in 2006, Bluegrass Cat was second at 30-1.
Both Cutting Humor and Spinoff have not raced since late March, keeping them fresh heading into the 'Run for the Roses'.
"Neither one of our horses have run in six weeks, so there's a bit of recency when compared to other horses with more recent preps," Pletcher said. "We didn't feel like another race would move them forward. It's just a matter of if they're good enough. Both are training really well."
Before running in their respective preps, both of Pletcher's contenders cut their metaphorical teeth on the tough NYRA circuit for juveniles.
A $400,000 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga August yearling, Cutting Humor debuted at Belmont in September and finished a promising second in the slop. Spinoff, a homebred son of Grade 1 King's Bishop winner and Kentucky Derby runner-up Hard Spun out of Grade 1 Acorn winner Zaftig, made his second career start in the Spa's Grade 2 Saratoga Special, finishing third.
Cutting Humor, a son of Grade 1 Hopeful and Grade 1 Champagne winner First Samurai, would go on to finish third behind subsequent Group 2 UAE Derby winner Plus Que Parfait at Keeneland before graduating at Gulfstream Park West and ultimately putting all the pieces together three races later in the Grade 3 Sunland Derby, in which he earned a 95 Beyer Speed Figure in victory.
Spinoff has been subsequently gingerly managed, not resurfacing until six months later when thrashing a Tampa Bay Downs allowance field before finishing a game second in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby - also earning a 95 Beyer.
"I thought that, in particular, Cutting Humor's last two breezes were exceptionally good; really strong breezes with good gallop-outs for leading into a mile and a quarter race," Pletcher said. "One thing that stands out to me is it's rare that you see a 3-year-old in March, even if the track was fast, shave 1:47 for a mile and an eighth like he did at Sunland. I thought that was a quality performance and I like the way he's trained since.
"Spinoff was at my dad's in Ocala and they were pretty high on him as a yearling and then as a 2-year-old," he continued. "He came in with high expectations. We had a little bit of a setback after a race at Saratoga, but at that time we hoped we could get him back and prepare him for the Derby. Luckily, things fell into place. His Louisiana Derby was a very good race and he's shown all along that he could be a very good horse. For only his second start of the year and shipping to the Fair Grounds, I thought he handled it well. With a good six weeks of preparation, we think we have him in as good a position as he can be in."
Two things that Pletcher cannot control have made themselves known this week. First, Cutting Humor, who will see Hall of Famer Mike Smith pick up the mount, drew post 10, and Spinoff (Manny Franco aboard) will leave from post 18 (after the scratch of Omaha Beach and Haikal). Secondly, a forecast that calls for rain has dampened the spirits of some connections.
"I don't mind the outside post for Spinoff," Pletcher said. "He doesn't have a lot of experience taking a lot of kickback, so it might not be too bad for him. At a mile and a quarter it's not that much different. He should have time to work his way over and he's traditionally been a good gate horse. Hopefully he can get away and get into a good stalking position.
"Cutting Humor is in 10, which is fine and hopefully he can work out a good trip from there. The good thing with both is that they won't be waiting for too long in the loading process.
"To be honest, neither have experience really competing on off tracks, but they have the pedigree to handle it fine and from what I have seen in their training, they should be able to handle it, but you never know in a 20-horse field. Things can change in a hurry at the break, but I think both will handle it."
Overall, it does not appear that Pletcher, a two-time winner of the Run for the Roses, is shaken by this field and quite frankly he has enjoyed flying slightly under the radar.
"Last year people talked about how it was one of the strongest fields in recent history, but it probably turned out not to be," he concluded. "This year, it looks wide-open and deep. I think it's a really good group and I like my chances."
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On Friday morning, the Kentucky Derby field was reduced to 19 following the scratch of Shadwell Farm's homebred Haikal, the Grade 3 Gotham winner at Aqueduct for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.
Haikal developed an abscess in his left front foot and did not respond to treatments in time for a scheduled Friday morning training session.
"We put shoes back on him this morning and jogged him and he was still not 100 percent," McLaughlin said. "After speaking with Rick Nichols (VP and GM of Shadwell's North American operations), we decided to scratch. The horse always comes first."
The 145th running of the Kentucky Derby is slated as Race 12 on Saturday at Churchill Downs with a post time of 6:50 p.m. ET.
NYRA Press Office