McLean’s Notes and Quotes From the Backside of Churchill Downs

There was a swarm of activity and dozens of people hanging around Todd Pletcher’s barn on the backside of Churchill Downs Sunday morning. In the middle of the congregation (Sunday, after all) was the Man of the Power Hour.

“Popular spot,” Pletcher told a couple of reporters from The Daily Racing Form. “Guess that happens when you win the Derby.”

That is exactly what happens.

On Saturday, the Pletcher-trained Always Dreaming ran away with a victory in the 143rd Kentucky Derby, on a muddy racetrack as if he was running on water (another Sunday reference, if you are wondering). Always Dreaming was never seriously challenged throughout the 11/4-mile race. He just matter-of-factly, without any drama gave Pletcher his second Derby victory.

On Sunday, Pletcher looked a bit like Joel Osteen — popular and handsome televangelist. He sounded a lot more like the stately, calm, reassuring Billy Graham, the bastion of the Baptist faith.

“It feels good,” Pletcher said. “The horse ran great. He came back great. Everything is great.”

Such is the world for Todd Pletcher these days. He swept through many of the major preps for this year’s Derby, winning with this colt and that colt and running gamely in nearly all of them.

Malagacy won the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes. Tapwrit won the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby. One Liner won the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes. Patch ran second in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby. Battalion Runner ran second in the Grade 2 Wood Memorial. And, there was Always Dreaming, who won the Grade 1 Florida Derby.

Pletcher entered the week with five possible starters for the Derby. He saddled three – thus becoming the leading trainer in Derby history with the most starts.

Now, it was time to bask in the glory of winning the Kentucky Derby – the greatest race on God’s Green Earth.

“Everybody is having a good time,” said Pletcher, as he watched the owners of Always Dreaming do interview after interview. “This is what it’s all about. You have to enjoy it when it happens.”

The joy will never go away. But tomorrow, Always Dreaming may be on his way to Maryland for the second leg of the Triple Crown – The Preakness Stakes to be run on May 20.

Pletcher has never trained a Triple Crown winner. Not yet. But I wouldn’t count him or Always Dreaming out. They are both at the top of the game for a reason. They are both very talented gentlemen.



 Caught up with trainer Buff Bradley early Sunday morning. Went by his barn to check on his wonderful horse, Divisidero. Divisidero was in his stall, not feeling much in the mood for picture taking. He had plenty of that on Saturday, after a rousing late run to win the Grade 1 Turf Classic at Churchill for the second straight year.

Divisidero’s victory puts him over $1 million dollars in earnings now. And, put Buff Bradley in the winner’s circle on Derby Day for the fourth time now in the last five years.

“It is kind of amazing when you think about it,” said Bradley, who I talked to on the phone just minutes after he left the barn area. “But it’s the greatest time to win. There is just so much enthusiasm and excitement and everybody is so fired up. That’s when you really want to win for your owners; so they can experience that.”

Buff Bradley has experienced a lot of great times and winner’s circle pictures in the last few years. He trained the great Brass Hat for his dad, Fred. He helped raise and trained the fantastic filly Groupie Doll.

But Bradley’s training job on Divisidero this year may rank as one of his best efforts. The 5-year-old horse started the year with two loses on the Gulfstream Park grass, which, in all honesty, doesn’t have a lot of grass on it. He ran third to Flatlined in the Grade 2 Fort Lauderdale and then sixth in the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap.

“I don’t think he really liked that course down there,” said Bradley. “It really isn’t his type of course. It plays more to speed. I just think he likes it better up here.”

He sure does. He ran a huge race at Keeneland on April 9, in an allowance race, closing fast to finish second, but beating Pleuven – a very nice horse in his own right.

It set him up perfectly. Divisidero was last going into the stretch on Saturday and he was seemingly boxed in every corner. Finally, jockey Julien Leparoux found a hole. And, Divisidero found the rest. He surged down the lane to beat Beach Patrol in a thrilling finish.

It was probably the most thrilling race of the day.

“What about that run?” said Bradley, in more of a statement than a question. “He was dead last at the top of the stretch and had no where to go. He really turned it only after that.”

Bradley doesn’t know exactly where Divisidero will run next. But he knows where he will be. And, that is on the backside of Churchill Downs. It is Divisidero’s favorite racetrack.

“This is our home,” Bradley said. “We will be right here.”



 As soon as the gate popped open, much of his chances of winning the Kentucky Derby closed for McCracken, one of the top favorites for the 143 running of the greatest race on earth. It took about two or three strides, before he was pushed into a line of horses, sustaining some cuts on his left hind leg.

Although McCracken found a good running spot, he was well off the pace on a day when you had to be close up to have a chance. Eventually, he worked himself up into contention and turning for home, it looked as if McCracken had inched up to fourth and was moving.

Just like that, though, his run was done. And, he finished up 8th in the field of 20.

“He got some cuts on his left hind,” said trainer Ian Wilkes at his barn on Sunday morning. “It happened right after the start. But that’s the Derby. It’s a tough race. We don’t make excuses. We will just regroup and go from there.”

The affable Wilkes doesn’t know exactly where and when McCracken will race again. He will be at Wilkes’ home on the backstretch of Churchill Downs.

But he does know that his 3-year-old, who was undefeated going into 2017 racing will return to his best form soon.

“He’s a good horse. I think he will get better the older he gets, too. I am really looking forward to later this year, and I truly think he will be much better and stronger as a 4-year-old, too,” said Wilkes.

Catch all of Wilkes comments in his audio interview segment here.


He broke really well out of the gate and put me in a good spot in the race. He broke and shot out of the gate and put me where I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be too far back and I think it was a perfect ride for him. I was concerned a little bit in the last part of the race, especially around the last sixteenth. I think that my horse tried to hold back to force inside and we had some contact. They say he tried to intimidate my horse and that is why I couldn’t get past him. I wish it would’ve just been the two horses running straight in the race. We were the best two horses in the race. I just want to see who the better horse is.”

Javier Castellano, Bolt D'Oro Jockey and winner San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita
  • Gene McLean

    Gene McLean

    Gene McLean began his professional career in 1977 as a sportswriter and columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky., and was recognized as one of the state’s best writers, winning the prestigious “Sportswriter of the Year” honor in 1985. Now the President and Publisher of The Pressbox, McLean sets ...

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