Entry into Saturday's Run for the Roses was supposed to come down to points, not purse money. But it still adds up to be Todd Pletcher's race to win or lose.
Post positions for the 139th Kentucky Derby will be drawn today at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.
Under the Derby's new entry system that awards points for various stakes, Pletcher looks like he's holding five aces. The trainer will have a record-tying five entries in the 20-horse field, including probable favorite Verrazano.
Raking in the Derby's $2 million pot is a lot harder than playing Texas Hold'em, the Dallas native said.
"Hold'em's four aces and this game's a little different than in Texas Hold'em," Pletcher said with a chuckle. "But we absolutely couldn't be more happy with the cards that we're holding at the moment. I couldn't be more excited about it."
The Derby field got a late addition Tuesday when the connections of Giant Finish realized their horse had enough points (10) to make the field. They thought they needed at least 20 to get in.
"I am so surprised at all of this," trainer Tony Dutrow said.
Still waiting to squeeze into the starting gate are Fear the Kitten (six points) and Carving (two points). Two weeks ago, both looked like they had no hope of making the cut.
But as Derby Day edged closer, more trainers decided to pass. Monday, three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert said he would sit this one out and wait for the Preakness or Belmont with his last three horses under consideration: Govenor Charlie, Code West and Power Broker. Six weeks ago, Baffert had eight horses in the Derby picture and five in the Top 20.
Besides Wood Memorial winner Verrazano, Pletcher also will enter Overanalyze, Revolutionary, Palace Malice and Charming Kitten. His large barn actually had eight horses with enough points for this Derby plus Breeder's Cup Juvenile champion Shanghai Bobby, who had a lackluster spring.
In addition, Pletcher has the favorite for Friday's Kentucky Oaks, Dreaming of Julia, who might have been a Derby contender. But under the points system, fillies can't run in the Derby unless they faced colts in designated prep races. The old system ranked the field by graded stakes earnings.
Regardless, Pletcher is very happy with his quintet of Derby bays.
"We're in a great position," Pletcher said, "and we've been here before (in 2007) with five horses, as have Wayne Lukas (1996) and Nick Zito (2005). We all know that just having five doesn't also mean that you're going to win the race."
Pletcher has won only one Derby Super Saver in 2010. That year, he saddled four starters.
"There certainly will be only one winner, and I have a tremendous appreciation for how difficult the Kentucky Derby is to win," Pletcher added. "Even if you have the best horse, a lot of times that doesn't mean you're going to succeed. You have to have everything go right on the day and during the race, and get lucky with the weather, and the track condition, and all those things."
Pletcher realizes he's had way more Derby losers than winners. So far, he's 1 for 31.
"The best-case scenario is I'm going to have four disappointed owners (after Saturday's race)," Pletcher told reporters Monday. "It's a blessing and a curse all at the same time. One of the things as a trainer you want to do is keep your owners happy, and in this particular case it's going to be pretty hard to do."
Meanwhile, trainer Doug O'Neill will try to win back to back Derbies with another Santa Anita Derby hero, Goldencents. O'Neill won the 2012 Derby and Preakness with I'll Have Another.
Goldencents ranks third overall in points (129) behind Verrazano and Florida Derby winner Orb (both with 150). But O'Neill thinks some tweaks are in order.
"I think there are some reasons why this point system could really play out better in the future," said O'Neill. "Obviously, some of the top fillies not having any points seems wrong, so they probably have to tweak with that a little bit. You do feel bad for a horse that wins the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and he's not automatically in.
"But they really want you not to rest on your laurels of your 2-year-old campaign, and really work hard as a 3-year-old developing and earning that trip to the Kentucky Derby," he added. "So, I think it's added some intrigue and some strategizing to everybody."
Call The Bee's Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her in Twitter @debarrington.