Pletcher and the Derby: Better than most thinkThe only thing more fashionable than Todd Pletcher's charcoal gray suits on race day is bashing the five-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer's Kentucky Derby record.
Admittedly, 1-for-31 isn't the most impressive stat, but it's also an unfair way to couch the opportunities he's had to win America's most famous race because he's only tried 12 times (but with 31 horses).
Ignoring the improbable chance of a dead heat, the best Pletcher's record could be is 12-for-31 (38.7%), and the chances of that based on off odds of his horses is 8,659,613,123,123-to-1.
But of course that's ridiculous. No one expects Pletcher to win the race every year, but even multiple wins is a tall order when you consider that no trainer in that period has won the Derby more than once, so in a stat for most Derby wins in the 21st century (whether you count 2000 or not), Pletcher is tied with 11 (or 12) others with one win each.
And when talking about Pletcher's Derby record the binary nature of what he can accomplish each year is often overlooked in stats such as "He's a 25% trainer overall but has only won the Derby with one starter from 30." He can either win or lose.
Pletcher is 1-for-31 (3.2%) in an era when all starters are 13-for-246 (5.3%). That makes all starters not trained by Todd Pletcher 12-for-215 (5.6%). Sure, a trainer of his stature could be expected to perform a little better than all starters, but even winning the race a second time gets him to just 6.45%, and we're about to see winning it twice is no easy task let alone the charming third time that would make him a nearly 10% trainer in one of the most difficult races in the world to win.
Pletcher saddled his first Kentucky Derby starter (actually first four Derby starters) in 2000. They had coupled entries for common ownership back then, so Impeachment and Trippi were half of a four-horse entry that also included High Yield and Commendable at 6.2-to-1. With High Yield unquestionably the strongest part of the entry, I estimated that Pletcher's half of the entry had about a 29-to-2 chance of winning. More Than Ready was 11.3-to-1 and Graeme Hall was 46.3-to-1. So the total chance that Pletcher would win in 2000 was 14.6 or about 5.85-to-1.
I conducted this same exercise for the other 12 Derbys since Pletcher began participating. He did not saddle a horse in 2003, so the probability of a win there is 0. His "best chance" came in 2007 when his five entrants (Any Given Saturday, Circular Quay, Cowtown Cat, Sam P., and Scat Daddy) were given a 5-to-2 chance in the win pool by the wagering public. He didn't get it done that year but did three years later when Super Saver scored at 8-to-1 on the tote but was part of a quartet the wagering public made 6-to-1 to get Todd his first Derby.
Given the chances Pletcher had of winning each Kentucky Derby, the most likely outcome is that he would have won the race...
That's right. For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth about how one of our best trainers "can't win the big one", the most likely result (37.4%) from running these 13 Kentucky Derbys is that he would have won the race one time , and it's only slightly more likely that he would have won it twice (25.7%) versus not at all (23.7%), and things get really difficult when you talk about 3 (8-to-1), 4 (38-to-1), or five or more wins (202-to-1).
Which is not to say such incredible runs can't happen. In the past 25 years streaks include Baffert's three wins in six years, Lukas's four wins in 12 years, and Zito's two wins in four years, and each of those runs dwarf what Pletcher has accomplished.
But no one is arguing for Pletcher being among the Derby greats. He's often painted as a goat, and while I'm sure many of his owners would prefer he had a little more success in the race, he's winning at about the rate you would expect.