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Lukas Protege Set for First Derby

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Derby hopeful MoreThanReady takes a tour of the track at Churchill Downs.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — If there's one thing Todd Pletcher learned in his years working for trainer D. Wayne Lukas, it is that there's strength in numbers.

This may be Pletcher's first trip to the Kentucky Derby since he set out on his own five years ago, but the Lukas protege boasts a Lukas-like contingent for Saturday's race at Churchill Downs.

In fact, Pletcher has four entries to Lukas' three in what is expected to be a full 20-horse field for the 1 1-4-mile Derby.

``Some people might say, `Oh, you know this guy's here with four horses. He's trying to make a big splash or whatever,''' the 32-year-old Pletcher said Sunday in front of Barn 42. ``We're here because all four horses deserve a chance to be here.''

Not only will this be the first Derby for the New York-based trainer, but with four 3-year-olds, Pletcher also makes history: No other rookie Derby trainer has saddled as many starters.

Pletcher's foursome is no pushover, either. He trains Blue Grass runner-up More Than Ready for James Scatuorchio; Arkansas Derby winner Graeme Hall for Eugene and Laura Melnyk; and undefeated Trippi and Impeachment, third in the Arkansas Derby, for Cot Campbell's Dogwood Stable.

``I'm pleased and excited about it,'' Pletcher said. ``But it's really hard to get too caught up in it because we're here with a job to do and we have four horses to do it with.''

Spoken like a true Lukas disciple — business, after all, is business.

Lukas, meanwhile, will send out Blue Grass winner High Yield, Exchange Rate and Commendable as he tries for his 13th win in a Triple Crown race.

Due to common ownership, two of Pletcher's horses — Trippi and Impeachment — will be coupled in the betting with two of Lukas' horses — High Yield and Commendable. The formidable quartet could end as the betting favorite over Fusaichi Pegasus.

Lukas, looking for his fifth Derby win, has a 20-year streak of saddling at least one Derby starter. The Hall of Famer has started a record 35 horses in the Derby, and on five occasions, he sent out three or more starters, including five in '96.

Pletcher started working for Lukas in 1989 after learning the ``training fundamentals'' from his father, Jake, who worked primarily on the Midwest racing circuit. In 1996, he came away from his Lukas experience with a much better understanding of what it takes to run a highly successful stable.

Under Pletcher's watch, Thunder Gulch won the '95 Florida Derby and then won the Derby and Belmont Stakes for Lukas.

On his own, Pletcher's best campaigner until this year was Jersey Girl, who won seven in a row including the Acorn, Mother Goose and The Test in 1998.

``What Wayne's organization does is it operates on a couple of fronts so everything has to be methodical and organized,'' said Pletcher, who has a degree in animal science from Arizona. ``And there's a lot of attention to details. If you were working for someone with 20 horses, maybe you wouldn't get all that.''

Pletcher seems to have the hang of it now. He has 80 horses in training in Kentucky and New York.

``He's turned into a terrific horseman with a great mind and a great flair for detail,'' Campbell said.

Other Lukas graduates include trainers Mark Hennig and Dallas Stewart. Asked about Pletcher preparing for his first Derby, Lukas said: ``I wish all of them had horses (here), and someday they will. And he (Pletcher) has four!''

More Than Ready, to be ridden by John Velasquez, looks to be Pletcher's best bet.
In the 1 1-8-mile Blue Grass, he battled High Yield in the stretch before losing by a head. He has six wins, two seconds and a third in 10 career starts, but has yet to win going around two turns.

``He established himself early on as a very good horse,'' Pletcher said of his colt who won his first five starts. ``We knew we had a classics type horse then. He was second in the Louisiana Derby his first time around two turns, and ran better in the Blue Grass. He's moving in the right direction.''

Then there's Trippi, unraced as a 2-year-old and 4-for-4 this year, including a win in the Flamingo Stakes. The last Derby winner who did not race as a 2-year-old was Apollo in 1882.

``He's the biggest surprise of all,'' Pletcher said. ``He's been playing catch-up all spring and has caught up very quickly.''

Trippi, who will be ridden for the first time by Jorge Chavez, had his final workout Sunday, going six furlongs in 1:12 4-5.

Graeme Hall, an 18-1 shot, led wire-to-wire in taking the Arkansas Derby, his third start this year. As a 2-year-old, he was second in the Breeders' Cup Futurity and then 12th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Shane Sellers gets the call on Graeme Hall.

``He's really stepped forward in the last month,'' Pletcher said of Graeme Hall.

And then there's the closer in the group, Impeachment, who rallied from way back for third in the Arkansas Derby after a second-place finish in the Tampa Bay Derby. He will be ridden by Craig Perret.

``He's just now learning how to run, learning how to get dirt in his face and not overreacting,'' Pletcher said.
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