Todd Pletcher

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143rd Kentucky Derby is as wide open as ever

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Bob Baffert is sitting out the Kentucky Derby, and not by choice.

Having the four-time Derby-winning trainer without at least one horse in the race for just the second time in 11 years indicates what an unpredictable winter it’s been leading to the start of the Triple Crown.

Baffert’s best horse, Mastery, got hurt after crossing the finish line first in the San Felipe Stakes. None of his other 3-year-olds developed into Derby material. Instead, he’ll aim for the $1 million Kentucky Oaks for fillies on Derby eve.

This year’s road to the 143rd Derby derailed other contenders because of injuries, including now-retired Not This Time, Klimt and Syndergaard.

“The amazing thing of getting a horse to the Derby is keeping him injury free,” said Doug O’Neill, who trained last year’s winner Nyquist.

For the first time in four years, the winner likely won’t be from California.

“It’s as wide open as we’ve seen in a long time. You’re going to have some big odds on whoever the favorite is,” said Dale Romans, who trains Gotham Stakes winner J Boys Echo. “It could be any horse this race. I don’t think this really means it’s a bad group of horses, I think it’s an even group of horses.”

There’s Classic Empire, who boasts an impressive resume as last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and champion 2-year-old. He won the Arkansas Derby and finished third in the Holy Bull Stakes, his only two starts this year.

His path to Churchill Downs hasn’t been smooth, however. He had a foot abscess and a back issue that prevented him from working out for a while. Twice in recent months, Classic Empire refused to train.

“I’ve never once counted him out. I know a lot of people have,” trainer Mark Casse said. “I feel that ability wise, he is the most talented horse out there right now.”

Casse also trains State of Honor, the Florida Derby runner-up.

Todd Pletcher has four horses set to run May 6 in the 1 \-mile race, with Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming as his leading contender.

Of course, big numbers are nothing new for the New York-based trainer.

He had five runners in 2013 and 2007. Yet for his 45 career starters, Pletcher has never had a Derby favorite. That could change this year with Always Dreaming, who had the fastest time among 35 horses going 5 furlongs at Churchill Downs on Friday.

“He’s got the right style to be really tough,” O’Neill said.

Pletcher’s lone victory came in 2010 with Super Saver. He is set to surpass mentor D. Wayne Lukas (48) for most career starters.

“Our Derby record is not as good as we’d like it to be,” he said. “We’ve had some horses overachieve on their way to getting there and in some cases, underachieve in the race itself.”

Besides Always Dreaming, Pletcher’s other horses are: Battallion Runner, Patch and Tapwrit. He almost had five again, but Malagacy isn’t expected to run.

There’s Girvin, the Louisiana Derby winner in a race against time to mend a crack in his right front hoof. His 32-year-old trainer Joe Sharp, the husband of retired jockey Rosie Napravnik, is doing everything he can to heal the colt in time to saddle his first Derby starter. Girvin had a similar crack earlier in the year and responded quickly to treatment.

“I’m not saying that I think I’m going to win the Derby, but I definitely wouldn’t trade places with anybody,” Sharp said. “He’s always consistent and he’s got the kind of running style that wins big races.”

As usual, a full field of 20 is expected. The final lineup won’t be known until Wednesday, when entries are drawn and post positions assigned.

Graham Motion, who trained 2011 Derby winner Animal Kingdom, is back with Irish War Cry, the Wood Memorial winner. His sire is Curlin, a two-time Horse of the Year who finished third in the 2007 Derby.

Still looking for his first Derby win is Steve Asmussen, who will saddle Hence and Untrapped. The trainer has two starters waiting in the wings, too. Lookin At Lee would be the next horse into the race if there are any defections, while Local Hero is No. 24 in the point standings.

Olympic skier Bode Miller recently bought into his first Derby starter, Fast and Accurate, winner of the Spiral Stakes. For years, Miller has been a guest of his pal Baffert during Derby week, but now he’s got some skin in the race.

For the fifth straight year, the field is determined by points from designated prep races. The top 20 earn a spot in the starting gate.

McCraken is 7-5 early favorite for Blue Grass Stakes

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — McCraken is the 7-5 morning line favorite for the $1 million Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland that awards 170 points toward the Kentucky Derby.

The unbeaten Kentucky-bred colt trained by Ian Wilkes drew the No. 2 post position on Tuesday for Saturday’s 1 1/8-mile Grade 2 race featuring seven 3-year-olds. McCraken is 4-0 and won the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 11.

Tapwrit is the 5-2 second choice and drew the No. 4 position. The Todd Pletcher-trained horse is sixth with 54 Derby points and was second to McCraken in the Davis.

Practical Joke is the 7-2 third choice and starts from the No. 7 position. Trained by Chad Brown, he has three wins with a third in last fall’s Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

California Chrome gets first look at Gulfstream Park

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. — California Chrome has gotten his first look at the site of his final race.

The leading money winner in North American racing history went for a jog at Gulfstream Park early Sunday, two days after arriving to prepare for the $12 million Pegasus World Cup on Jan. 28.

California Chrome has never raced in Florida, and his brisk pre-dawn trek onto the Gulfstream dirt – on an unseasonably chilly morning, the 48-degree air feeling colder in the wind – was the first of many scheduled for the next few days. He’s set to have daily early morning gallops until Saturday, when the plan calls for him to breeze five furlongs.

The first trek around Gulfstream was a success, the energetic colt seeming even more revved up by the cool conditions.

“That cold wind hitting him in the butt probably set him off a little bit,” Alan Sherman, the son of trainer Art Sherman, said as he stood in darkness outside the barn that California Chrome is calling home for the next few weeks. “He looked great. He’s sound and everything. Looked good.”

Gulfstream is the 10th, and final, track where California Chrome will run. He’ll be retired to stud in Kentucky after the Pegasus, a race that could push his career earnings past $20 million.

Coming in with plenty of time to acclimate might be a help.

California Chrome has only four wins in nine debut outings at a track. He’s got 12 wins in 17 starts when he has at least one race over a given surface.

“I’ve got nothing to worry about,” Sherman said. “As long as Chrome’s happy, I’m happy.”

The Pegasus is widely expected to be a rematch of sorts between California Chrome and Arrogate, the front-runners for Horse of the Year honors to be announced at the Eclipse Awards at Gulfstream on Jan. 21. They waged a memorable duel in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, with Arrogate winning by a half-length to hand California Chrome his only loss in eight starts in 2016.

Arrogate was scheduled to work later Sunday at Santa Anita – where rainy weather has kept trainer Bob Baffert from what would have been his preferred schedule leading into this race. Arrogate has won his last five starts, including a record-setting time in winning the Travers at Saratoga in August.

“I want to run against Arrogate,” Sherman said. “I hope he comes.”

Meanwhile, the 12-horse field for the Pegasus – the richest race in the world, surpassing the $10 million Dubai World Cup – is taking shape, and many of the likely starters are already in South Florida.

Keen Ice and Neolithic, both trained by Todd Pletcher, worked Saturday at Palm Beach Downs. Shaman Ghost worked Friday at Palm Meadows, and Eragon cleared quarantine last week after arriving from Argentina.