Trainer Todd Pletcher was ready last summer to give the bay son of Union Rags in his care some slack regarding expectations as well as some extra special treatment.
His decades of Eclipse Award-winning experience told him that, while it is certainly possible for a horse to succeed on the racetrack after losing an eye, those who often did, adjusted to their infirmity well before they were put into training.
So when Pletcher was informed that the left eye of the aptly named Patch had to be removed due to a mysterious ailment —when he learned the youngster who was already putting in timed workouts had to resume his career with only one sound orb — Pletcher figured at the very least a significant relearning process would be necessary.
“My biggest concern was he was already well into his 2-year-old year. He was already up to a half-mile breeze and he’d had two full eyes for over two years,” Pletcher recalled. “So my concern was, how is he going adapt to it? From my experience, which is limited with a handful of horses, it seems like the ones that do best are the ones who lose their eye really young because that’s all they know. But I think the remarkable thing about him is we really haven’t had to do anything special.”
Were it not for the cavity that resides where his eye once did, there indeed would be no indicator Calumet Farm’s homebred Patch is coping with a limited view of his world. In both his morning activities and race outings, the bay runner behaves like yet another Pletcher-conditioned sophomore upstart. This week, he is set to become yet another Pletcher-trained classic starter when he enters the gate May 6 for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands.
For all the 45 prior Derby starters the seven-time Eclipse Award winner has guided to this point in his career, you could argue none has earned the level of public endearment the way Patch has since his runner-up finish in the April 1 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby.
If his unique appearance made him a fan favorite and social media darling, it has done nothing to impact his progression since he debuted this January. After a runner-up finish in his initial outing at Gulfstream Park, Patch broke his maiden at second asking on Feb. 18 before throwing in another second — to Girvin in the Louisiana Derby — in just his third career start and first try against graded company.
Count his unflappable trainer among the most pleasantly surprised by the colt’s methodical ways. When the eye ailment was discovered last June and it was determined after weeks of treatment that it could not be saved, Pletcher sent the colt to his father, J.J. Pletcher, at Payton Training Center in Ocala to essentially undergo what he thought would be a relearning process for the colt.
A few weeks into his time working with Patch, J.J. Pletcher informed his son that the colt didn’t need to be retrained — he just needed to be put back into training.
“I sent him back to my dad’s training center because I thought there was going to be sort of a rebreaking process for him. And after a couple weeks we were like, ‘This horse is fine,’ ” Todd Pletcher said. “I mean, there is common sense stuff, like I don’t come up to him without letting him know I’m there. You don’t want to startle him, things like that. But really, you really wouldn’t know it and you don’t really have to do anything special with him either from a rider standpoint on the track or around the barn.”
Pletcher cracked that in anticipation of having to tell Patch’s story multiple times during the run up to the Kentucky Derby, he went over his records to make sure he had the timeline of the colt’s recovery accurate. What the trainer still doesn’t have an answer for is how the initial injury happened to begin with. They simply found the eye swollen nearly shut and tearing heavily one day last summer, but there was no sign the colt had been cast in his stall or injured in any other way.
“Actually, we don’t know the cause of it,” Pletcher explained. “We sent him over to Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Saratoga and ... essentially what he had was an inflammation of the globe. And at that time, we couldn’t save the eye so it was removed. There was really nothing we could do about it so, without doing a biopsy or tissue sample, they really don’t know what the cause of it was.
“It makes you think there has to be some sort of infection in there or something, but the eye was never discolored, it never had an ulcer or a cloud on it. It was really strange. The vets that worked on it said they hadn’t seen one quite like it.”
Ironically, Patch isn’t the first Derby contender with loss of vision that Pletcher has trained. In 2004, Pletcher saddled Illinois Derby winner Pollard’s Vision — who was blind in one eye — to a 17th place run in the 1 1/4-mile classic. He conditioned the son of Carson City throughout his 23 career starts.
Pollard’s Vision lost sight in his eye due to an injury he suffered as a foal, so he was already adjusted to his new reality by the time Pletcher picked him out at the 2003 Keeneland April 2-year-olds in training sale. Where that one had a tendency to run with his head slightly cocked, Patch competes with no obvious sign that he is anything other than another talented contender his connections are placing classic faith in.
“It’s an intriguing story," Pletcher said. "He’s a really, really cool horse to be around. Very professional, very straight-forward, easy to train. He’s just a consummate pro.”