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The Kentucky Derby can be won long before the first Saturday in May and far from the lights that bring an ancient sport in from the darkness each spring. It can be won in the breeding shed, or it can be won in the sales ring. It can be won late at night in a tavern where one horse trader sells his stock to another out of avarice or desperation. And it can be won when a man punches 10 digits into his BlackBerry, raises the phone to his ear and asks for a little help.
Last November trainer Todd Pletcher, winner of four Eclipse Awards and zero Kentucky Derbys (0 for 24 in nine races since 2000), was at his office on the backstretch at Belmont Park outside New York City, putting together the pieces of his coming Triple Crown season. Among his many contenders was a horse named Super Saver, who had raced three times from August through October and would soon be shipped to Kentucky to run in a stakes called the Kentucky Jockey Club on Thanksgiving weekend at Churchill Downs. Pletcher needed a rider for that race, so he called Jerry Hissam, the longtime agent for jockey Calvin Borel.
This is the same Calvin Borel who had won his first Kentucky Derby with a breathtaking rail-hugging ride aboard favored Street Sense in 2007 and his second last year—at age 42—with an even more harrowing inside trip on 50--1 shot Mine That Bird. Pletcher is a meticulous man who trains for some of the wealthiest owners in the world and whose next bad hair day will be his first. He does not act lightly. Yet there is an almost mystical connection between Borel and the Derby, and maybe it was time for Pletcher to get a piece. "It was in the back of our minds," Pletcher says. "We were thinking, Calvin would be great to put on a horse with Derby prospects."
Late last Saturday afternoon Pletcher was in another office at another racetrack, just off the paddock at Churchill Downs, watching on television as Super Saver won the 136th Derby. In a box above the finish line, Pletcher's 72-year-old mother, Jerrie, squeezed the blood from the hand of Chris Cagnina, a friend of Pletcher's from their college days at the University of Arizona, while urging Super Saver home. More than 155,000 spectators, soaked by daylong rains and now in unexpected sunshine, watched Borel again seize the rail from the greatest jockeys in the world, riding short while they all rode long in the slop ("We know he's coming, and we still keep letting him through," said Mike Smith, who rode 12th-place finisher Jackson Bend) and flashing beneath the wire 2½ lengths clear of Ice Box.
On the infield grass, en route to the trophy presentation, Borel reached down from the saddle and screamed at Pletcher, "Give me a shot!" and then smacked the trainer's right hand with his own. Pletcher, who does not do public emotion, then embraced another old college friend, Scott Beahm, and called him by his nickname, Goat. "He didn't say a lot," said Beahm. "But you could tell he was like, I did it!"
This was the Derby that Pletcher, 42, was supposed to win, fully validating a career whose roots lay in the summers of his youth, when he traveled the racing circuit from Texas to Nebraska to California with his father, Jake, also a trainer. But Todd wasn't supposed to win with Super Saver or with Borel. He had come to Louisville with a brilliant 3-year-old named Eskendereya, the blowout winner of two Derby preps and the subject of Triple Crown buzz. "The truth is that some of the horses we've taken over there probably didn't belong in the Derby," said Pletcher nine days before the race, "but Eskendereya is absolutely the best horse we've brought to this race."
On the Sunday before the Derby, however, Eskendereya was pulled from the race with swelling in his left foreleg. Pletcher was still left with six possible starters (he settled on four), but none appeared to be at Eskendereya's level.
The result was a wide-open race. Lookin At Lucky, trained by three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert, went off at 6.30--1, the biggest-priced favorite in Derby history. Super Saver was bet down to the second choice, at 8--1. No horse went off at longer than 32--1. Among the starters were Noble's Promise and Paddy O'Prado, with 35 owners between them, and Make Music for Me, whose trainer, Alexis Barba, tended to the Oakland A's mascot—a mule named Charlie O. (after eccentric owner Charlie O. Finley)—in her teens. "He was a very big mule," said Barba during race week, "but very well-behaved."
Borel's week had gone from good to controversial. He won five races on Saturday, April 24, but six days later he was beaten aboard 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra in the La Troienne Stakes, Rachel's second consecutive defeat. Asked after the race if Borel would ride Rachel in future races, owner Jess Jackson said, "That's not decided, of course."
The Derby was another matter. Super Saver was bred and is owned by WinStar Farm of Versailles, Ky., a high-powered operation started in 2000 by wealthy Texas racing fans and longtime friends Bill Casner and Kenny Troutt, who first met in 1970 when they tried to claim the same horse at now-defunct Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack in Omaha. Like Pletcher, WinStar endured 11th-hour disappointment, as potential Derby starters Endorsement (injury) and Rule (Pletcher's decision) could not race.