Pletcher, Smith aim for winning combination at Louisiana Derby

Increasingly, Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith doesn’t like to be tied down to one race track.

And trainer Todd Pletcher certainly doesn’t feel like his horses have to be familiar with his surroundings to have success.

Those like-minded schools of thought produced a victory for Intense Holiday in the Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds last month and has the same horse as the favorite in Saturday’s 101st running of the Louisiana Derby.

A field of 10 is set for the Grade I, $1 million race, which caps a day that includes six other stakes events.

“I’m getting to the point where I fly out just at least every other weekend,” said Smith, 49, who rode at his home base at Santa Anita on Thursday before arriving in New Orleans late Friday and will be back in Los Angeles in time for Sunday’s card at Santa Anita. “When you’re blessed to be getting good horses in good races, it’s worth it.”

Smith, whose best previous Louisiana Derby finish was third aboard Rousing Sermon in 2012, will be riding in five other races Saturday, including the New Orleans Handicap, where he will be reunited with 2013 Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice, another Pletcher-trained horse.

Pletcher is known for shipping his large stable of horses from his Boynton Beach, Fla., training center to pinpoint favorable competition and track conditions. That certainly paid off in the Risen Star, when fast-closing Intense Holiday took advantage of the Fair Grounds’ long stretch to overtake Albano in the final stride.

That victory was worth 50 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby, enough to assure Intense Holiday a berth regardless of Saturday’s outcome.

Pletcher’s decision also paid off last year, when Revolutionary turned his only Fair Grounds appearance into a Louisiana Derby victory.

“It’s a philosophy we’ve been able to build up with our owners over the years,” said Pletcher, a four-time Eclipse Award winner as the nation’s top trainer. “As a public trainer, it’s my job to do what’s best for each horse, to develop them and then put them in the best position to have success. Sometimes we’ve got to put them against each other in the same race and every owner hopes he has a Derby horse. But in the end, you do what’s best for each individual.”

Pletcher has a second entry in the Louisiana Derby: King Cyrus, who is coming off a second-place finish in a stakes race at Calder two weeks ago.

“We gave him the winter off, he trained really well and then finished second on a demanding track,” Pletcher said. “We feel like it’s worth taking a shot with him.”

But Pletcher won’t be here Saturday, remaining instead at Gulfstream Park, where he has Constitution running in the Florida Derby. Traveling assistant Ginny DePasquale will be in charge Saturday, as she was at the Risen Star.

“Our system works well for us,” said DePasquale, who arrived Thursday. “Todd has such good rapport with the owners, and they trust his decisions. And then Todd and I have worked together for 17 years, so we communicate well. When you can get a jockey like Mike to come in, familiarity is not that much of a factor.”

But instead of bringing in a rider for King Cyrus, Pletcher is using James Graham, who is second in the Fair Grounds jockey standings.

Albano and Vicar’s in Trouble, who was third in the Risen Star after winning the Lecomte in January, are expected to be Intense Holiday’s chief challengers Saturday, along with shipper In Trouble.

Intense Holiday drew the No. 1 post position, but Pletcher said he did not expect that to be a major problem.

“As long as he can break cleanly, he should be in good position coming out of the first turn,” he said. “When you’ve got a guy like Mike on board, you know he can handle these kinds of situations.”

Similarly, Jack Wolf, managing partner of Starlight Racing, the partnership that owns Intense Holiday, credits Smith for the Risen Star victory.

“He was the difference in that last race,” Wolf said. “Mike just rode those other horses down in the stretch. You always feel better with someone of Mike’s caliber is your rider.”

Smith said he appreciated the confidence Pletcher and Wolf have in him, but he’s not ready to commit to Intense Holiday for the Kentucky Derby, which he has won once — with Giacomo in 2005.

“I’ve got the Santa Anita Derby next week and a colt named Hoppertunity in Arkansas in two weeks,” he said. “We’ll just see how we do and go from there. But if we’re blessed enough to pull this off, that can make a difference.”