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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Thursday, April 25, 2013 at 12:00 AM

Kentucky Derby travel plans change with the times

Last year, in an attempt to avoid the often-volatile weather in Kentucky in the spring, trainer Todd Pletcher decided to remain at Palm Meadows with his Kentucky Derby runners until the week of the race, and watched it rain, rain, rain in south Florida.So this year, after running his horses in preps in New York, Kentucky, Florida, Arkansas, and Louisiana, Pletcher consolidated his Derby runners at Churchill Downs, where on Wednesday it rained, rained, rained.

Meanwhile, trainer Eddie Plesa has kept Itsmyluckyday at Calder in south Florida, where the weather has been consistently good, and Doug O’Neill, who trains Goldencents, has followed the same pattern he did a year ago with I’ll Have Another, remaining in California to do his serious training and not shipping in until one week before the Derby.

"First of all, I get to stay home. That’s a big plus," Plesa, on a national teleconference earlier this week, said of his reasons for not heading to Louisville this weekend. "Second of all, Calder’s racing surface, I think, will prepare you for any other racing surface, so I think that’s a plus. The third thing is we do not have to deal with weather conditions that may be happening or may arise in Kentucky. So I just think, for our horse, it’s the right thing to do."

For years, trainers seemed wanting to get to Churchill Downs as quickly as possible after a final prep race, believing familiarization with the surface, and the surroundings, were important for Derby preparedness. But that has changed in recent years. In addition to I’ll Have Another’s relatively late arrival last year, Derby winner Giacomo (2005) did not get to Churchill Downs until the week of the race after having his final drill at Hollywood Park six days before the Derby, and in 2003, Funny Cide arrived three days before the Derby after having his final work at Belmont Park four days before the race.

Yet Animal Kingdom (2011), Super Saver (2010) - trained by Pletcher - Mine That Bird (2009), Big Brown (2008), Barbaro (2006), and Smarty Jones (2004) all arrived in Louisville in time to have their final workout at Churchill Downs, and Street Sense (2007) trained there for weeks, his residence interrupted only by a quick trip to Keeneland for a final prep race in the Blue Grass Stakes.

One of the reasons an early arrival at Churchill Downs has been deemed less essential by trainers is the widely held belief that the surface changes greatly in the fortnight preceding the Derby, especially after the meet opens one week before the race, so the track you train on does not necessarily resemble the track you race on.

Pletcher, in particular, was critical of Churchill’s track following the Breeders’ Cup in fall 2011, which contributed to his camping out in Florida in spring 2012.

"I think there was some sort of surface change, perhaps during the summer in between the spring and the fall meet - probably some additional clay," Pletcher said. "The Churchill surface is normally a surface that dries out very quickly after a rain, and that particular case, it essentially did not dry out throughout the week. I would describe it at that time as a peanut buttery-type surface that was sticky and demanding, and it seemed like a lot of horses that were speed-oriented types didn’t do particularly well."

Pletcher said the main reason he decided to come to Churchill Downs earlier this year was not because of last year’s experience, but more out of logistics.

"We just sort of had horses prepping in so many different places and felt like that this would be the easiest place to consolidate rather than moving everyone back to Florida after the Blue Grass, and the Wood Memorial, and the Louisiana Derby," he said.

While the weather was dreary Wednesday, the forecast, according to the Weather Channel, was for improved conditions Thursday and Friday, but there was a chance for more rain over the weekend, 30 percent on Saturday, 20 percent on Sunday, the day Pletcher is planning on giving Overanalyze, Palace Malice, Revolutionary, and Verrazano their final works.

So far, though, the track surface has been "in excellent condition," Pletcher said.

"It seems like the horses that we’ve been training over it and breezing over it have been getting over it very well," he said. "Sometimes the track will change when the race meet starts, and I think we’ll see how that develops once the races start here on Saturday, but so far I’ve been happy with it."

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