Racing News

A test of resolve: Can Itsmyluckyday go the distance?

| KentuckyDerby.com | 04/18/2013 #
  • Itsmyluckyday (Leslie Martin)

For those trainers still chasing a garland of roses, the Kentucky Derby presents this great paradox: The horses who make their way into the starting gate on May 4 will be the best in their class, the fastest 3-year-olds in the land, and yet, until their resolve is tested over the Derby’s one-and-one-quarter miles, no one really knows how good they are. None of these horses has ever raced this far.

So the horse, Itsmyluckyday for example, can be both versatile and exceptionally fast, and still have his Derby credentials called into question. Itsmyluckyday has won at distances from five furlongs to 1-1/16 miles, on fast tracks and sloppy ones. He has run a couple of strong races on the grass, too. In his most emphatic performance, a victory in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park in January, he conquered last year’s champion 2-year-old, Shanghai Bobby, and set a new track record.

The horses who make their way into the starting gate on May 4 will be the best in their class, the fastest 3-year-olds in the land, and yet, until their resolve is tested over the Derby’s one-and-one-quarter miles, no one really knows how good they are. None of these horses has ever raced this far.

But does Itsmyluckyday have the all-important staying power that could catapult him to victory at Churchill Downs? Can his heart get big when his legs and lungs get weary? Those who study breeding are uncertain, if not downright skeptical. A sample from Brisnet:

Itsmyluckyday is by champion Lawyer Ron, who was at his best at 1-1/8 miles, and out of a mare unlikely to help his stamina … [he] is the second registered foal from Viva La Slew. The winner of a two-furlong maiden as a juvenile, Viva La Slew later placed in a 5-1/2-furlong sprint stakes, and never won past a mile. Viva La Slew is by Doneraile Court, a son of Seattle Slew who inherited his sire's high speed, but apparently not his stamina.

For Eddie Plesa Jr., who trains Itsmyluckyday for an ownership group that includes his wife, Laurie, and longtime clients David Melin and Marion Montanari, those doubting words are just background noise. And what is Plesa going to do about it anyway? Itsmyluckyday already has a guaranteed spot in the Kentucky Derby. No one is going to cut bait because someone says Plesa’s horse can’t get the distance.
 
“None of that matters right now,” the trainer said this week from his home base at Calder Race Course near Miami. “The vast majority of these horses will never run a mile and quarter again. So for me, it is two things: Are they a distance horse, or are they a sprinter? We already know we can go around two turns. The pace and all the other factors that come into play, that will determine the result. It doesn’t matter what you read, and what their thoughts are. None of that sways me one way or another. You don’t know until they run the distance. We’ll find out.”
 
There is ample evidence that Itsmyluckyday belongs on the short list of legitimate Derby contenders. He won the one-mile Gulfstream Park Derby on New Year’s Day, and then took the Holy Bull 25 days later. No matter how the experts slice it, his effort in the Holy Bull was sensational.

“There were three factors,” Plesa said. “One, the way he did it, setting a track record. Second was who he beat. Third, if you’re a numbers person, the Ragozin numbers and the Thoro-Graph numbers, he duplicated a huge number less than 30 days out. If you talk to all the numbers people, that very seldom happens. I don’t live by the numbers, but I do pay attention to them. I have a lot of respect for those numbers, and he went against the normal thought process. When he won Jan. 1 and came back less than 30 days and bettered that time, that’s very, very unusual.”
 
Itsmyluckyday was rested for two months following the Holy Bull and wasn’t in peak form for his most recent start March 30, when he finished second behind Orb in the Florida Derby. But that was partly by design, Plesa said.

There is ample evidence that Itsmyluckyday belongs on the short list of legitimate Derby contenders. He won the one-mile Gulfstream Park Derby on New Year’s Day, and then took the Holy Bull 25 days later. No matter how the experts slice it, his effort in the Holy Bull was sensational.

“Certainly I was disappointed that he didn’t win, but my goal has always been the Kentucky Derby. If it had been the Florida Derby, I would have done things differently to win the Florida Derby. He had 62 days off, that was by design, because when you’re coming into this race, I have to have a horse who isn’t worn out. It’s like back-to-back games for basketball players; they have to be fresh going into these.”
 
Plesa has tightened the screws again in recent weeks, and Itsmyluckyday has responded like a champion. A potential champion.
 
“He looks like a million dollars,” the trainer said. “He’s got great color, he’s got great weight. He’s bigger and stronger now than when he won the Holy Bull. As the custodian, the trainer, the part-owner, that’s what you’re looking for coming into this race. He’s going to work here Thursday, and then again the following Thursday. He’ll leave South Florida eight days before the Derby and arrive early Saturday morning, a week out.”

That’s when the tension will heat to a slow boil, hour upon hour of waiting and anticipation. If the window of opportunity opens for Itsmyluckyday, will the colt be good enough to step through? There’s a reason they call it the greatest two minutes in sports.

“I’m superstitious; a lot of us racetrackers are,” Plesa said. “You can’t help but think about it, and what it’s like to be a part of it. It’s another thing to be in there and think you can win the race. I believe we can win – our horse could be the best horse in the race. I’ve said this before: I want everyone to have an equal shot and no one to get in trouble. I don’t want any excuses.

“My wife has been on the Derby trail before with her brother, John Servis, who won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness with Smarty Jones. So she experienced the highs, and then going into the Belmont and the disappointment of having the horse finish second. She understands the game, she loves the game. Do we find ourselves pinching ourselves once in a while? Absolutely.”