The week had been emotionally draining for both trainer Todd Pletcher and the WinStar Farm of Bill Casner and Kenny Troutt. Both had multiple entries for the 136th Kentucky Derby on Saturday at Churchill Downs, but went to battle with less ammunition than they first envisioned.
For Pletcher, he had to withdraw the race's acknowledged favorite, Eskendereya, last weekend because of swelling in the colt's left front leg. Pletcher still had four runners, but not the one he thought he needed most.
WinStar started the week with four potential Derby runners, but was down to two by post time, owing to the defections of Rule, because he was not training satisfactorily, and Endorsement, who was injured in a workout on Wednesday.
But where Pletcher and WinStar overlapped, they had the best weapon anyone can bring to battle at Churchill Downs - jockey Calvin Borel.
It was Borel, with another uncanny ride in the feature race on the first Saturday in May, who made a difficult week for Pletcher and WinStar end in the most glorious fashion. Borel rode Super Saver, owned by WinStar and trained by Pletcher, to a 2 1/2-length victory over late-running Ice Box before an announced crowd of 155,804.
Pletcher was 0 for 24 in nine prior Derbies, giving the otherwise highly successful trainer the dubious distinction of having run the most starters without a winner in Derby history.
"It feels awfully good," said Pletcher, who cracked a wide smile at a post-race press conference but was his usually unflappable self. "Everyone kept saying there was one out there with our name on it, but we didn't take anything for granted."
Pletcher said Borel, who won the Derby for the third time in the last four years, is "a great rider everywhere, but he's five lengths better at Churchill Downs."
"It feels terrific," Pletcher said. "The one thing that was important to me was that I wanted to do it while my parents were still here to see it. It'll soak in in a day or two. I've dreamed of winning the Kentucky Derby my whole life. Now that it has happened I don't know what to feel or say. I wish I could wax poetic. It's all still soaking in."
Super Saver completed 1 1/4 miles on a sloppy track in 2:04.45. It had rained almost the entire day, but, appropriately, the sun came out just as the horses came on the track for the post parade, when the bank struck up "My Old Kentucky Home."
Super Saver ($18) hugged the rail the whole way while racing in the first flight of horses behind the runaway leaders, Conveyance and Sidney's Candy. On the far turn, Super Saver came around Conveyance and knifed between him and Noble's Promise, who had briefly taken the lead. Super Saver kicked clear passing the furlong pole while racing along the inside, a path well worn over the years by Borel, who also won the Derby on Street Sense in 2007 and Mine That Bird last year.
Conveyance, with Sidney's Candy in close pursuit, set rapid fractions of 22.63 seconds for the opening quarter-mile, 46.16 seconds for a half-mile, and 1:10.58 for six furlongs. But both were spent by the time the horses reached the far turn.
Ice Box, far back early, finally got clear late and finished furiously. Paddy O'Prado was another neck length back in third, with Make Music for Me fourth to complete the 4-2-10-9 superfecta.
Noble's Promise was fifth and was followed, in order, by Lookin At Lucky, Dublin, Stately Victor, Mission Impazible, the filly Devil May Care, American Lion, Jackson Bend, Discreetly Mine, Dean's Kitten, Conveyance, Homeboykris, Sidney's Candy, Line of David, Awesome Act, and Backtalk in the 20-horse field.
Lookin At Lucky, the favorite, had a dreadful trip after breaking from the rail. He was pinched back an eighth of a mile into the race, was 18th coming under the wire the first time, rallied powerfully on the far turn and into the stretch, but could not sustain his run. It was the third straight poor trip he has had this year.
Lookin At Lucky went off at 6.30-1, the highest-priced favorite in Derby history.
Super Saver was winning for the third time in seven starts. He had won his only prior start on an off track, last fall against maidens at Belmont Park, and had won his only previous race at Churchill Downs, in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes.
Super Saver had lost his only two starts this year. He was third in the Tampa Bay Derby, then was second three weeks ago in the Arkansas Derby.
"The horse worked beautifully over the track," Pletcher said. "I don't know what we did, but since the Arkansas Derby, this horse has just gotten better and better and better. Earlier this year, we were playing catch up. We went to Tampa, not quite where we wanted to be, but it moved us forward. Then we went to the Arkansas Derby, and the Arkansas Derby put him right on."
Super Saver, a colt by Maria's Mon, also was bred by WinStar. His dam, Supercharger, a daughter of A.P. Indy, is a full sister to Bluegrass Cat, who ran second for Pletcher and WinStar in the 2006 Derby.
"This is why you do this, why you're in this business, this game," Casner said on the winner's podium after the race. "It's an out-of-body experience."