HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. — No trainers have sent more horses to the Kentucky Derby than D. Wayne Lukas and Todd Pletcher, which may bode well for Jonathan Thomas.

Lukas mentored Pletcher — a Hall of Famer teaching a sure-fire future Hall of Famer.

And then Pletcher mentored Thomas, who now finds himself in position for a breakout moment.

Thomas will send Catholic Boy out against eight other hopefuls in Saturday’s $1 million Florida Derby; trainer and horse are both seeking what would be the most significant result of their careers. A good showing over Gulfstream Park’s dirt almost certainly would be enough to send them to the Kentucky Derby in five weeks.

“Listen, we’re very one step one step at a time,” said Thomas, explaining why he’s hesitant to start talking about anything past the Florida Derby. “This is an important race. It can almost solidify a horse’s career as a stallion which is very important. One step at a time. I mean, this race is very important to us. … You can’t get ahead of your horse. You really have to take it day by day.”

Catholic Boy is the third choice in the morning line, with early odds of 7-2. The 9-5 favorite is Audible, the winner of the Grade 2 Holy Bull at Gulfstream eight weeks ago. Promises Fulfilled, who won the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream, is the second choice at 3-1.

Audible is trained by Pletcher. Promises Fulfilled is trained by Dale Romans, another conditioner that Thomas worked under, albeit briefly.

“I think everyone in this business gets up and works hard every day to partake in these sort of things,” Thomas said. “And you can’t do it without the owners who support you. You know, I’m a spoke in a wheel with a lot of spokes. And ultimately you have to have the horse flesh, the athlete to compete at these levels. It’s not lost on me what we’re doing.”

Pletcher and Lukas have both sent 48 horses to the Kentucky Derby. They’ve combined to win more than $630 million in purses, prevailing in more than 9,300 races.

They are titans.

Thomas isn’t anywhere near that yet. He has 32 victories as a trainer, with about $1 million in purses. But Pletcher has long raved about his former protege, and it’s easy to see what a win on Saturday could do for his career.

“He always exceeded expectations that we had,” Pletcher said last year, when Thomas was just getting started on his own.

A win in the Florida Derby might even exceed Thomas’ own expectations.

He’s overcome plenty as a horseman, including a nasty fall as a steeplechase rider that left him with a broken back and briefly paralyzed. He fought back and now doesn’t even reflect much on those days, with the lone reminder being occasional back pain when he gets out of bed in the morning before heading to the barn.

Now he’s trying to win a race where his mentor is going to be favored. Thomas speaks only with reverence for Pletcher, but can’t wait for Saturday.

“I take that as an honor, to be associated with this him and his program,” Thomas said. “I can only look at that as an immense positive, because working for him was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

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TIM REYNOLDS
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