Friday, March 27, 2009
Pletcher Focused on the Derby
Boynton Beach, Fla., March 25, 2009--Several months after I had taken a buyout from Newsday, I spent my first full season in South Florida looking for work.
It was winter, 1997. Eibar Coa was a new 10-pound bug boy at the meet and a young former Wayne Lukas assistant was striking out on his own at Gulfstream Park.
In the early double one afternoon, the young trainer had a maiden claimer that looked interesting, and not only because the mount attracted no less than leading rider Jerry Bailey.
I can’t remember the filly’s name, but I remember being happy to collect 9-2 after she broke maiden, looking like a winner at every pole.
“It was a tough decision,” said Todd Pletcher inside his office on the north side of Barn 11 at Palm Meadows training center, an impressive facility that even Frank Stronach’s most ardent critics admit has set the bar in state of the art equine housing.
“Wayne was loaded that year. He had lots of two-year-olds that could really run. And I had seven horses.”
Now Pletcher has over 30 horses inside Barn 11, a like number inside Barn 12 and a like number in the next barn, too. Pletcher has 97 head in all here, notwithstanding sizable divisions at every major racing venue in America.
That’s one of the knocks you hear about Pletcher from rival trainers and horseplayers alike. “He’s got all the horses.”
Inside Barn 11, stall 5, stood the probable favorite for tomorrow’s Florida Derby, Dunkirk, a gray colt by Unbridled’s Song, from the A.P. Indy mare, Secret Status, looking like a million bucks, actually more like 3.7 million bucks.
Dunkirk was a bargain compared to the $16-million the same owners spent for a horse called The Green Monkey which, in case anyone’s forgotten, never won a race and unceremoniously was retired.
Another knock on Pletcher is that with seemingly all the talented horses in the world at his disposal, he’s never won the Kentucky Derby. Pletcher thinks this is the best horse he ever will have led over to the Churchill Downs paddock for the feature race on May’s first Saturday.
It was nearly 10 a.m. and Pletcher was spending much of his time on the phone. I watched Dunkirk get gently rubbed on by three attractive female handlers, one applying an electro-magnetic blanket on his back that seemed to make the rest of him feel good all over. He stood quietly, as if asleep, the women continuing their petting and rubbing.
“You wouldn’t mind being rubbed on by three women, would you?” Pletcher asked.
It was still early morning for me. I thought I might find good use for the blanket.
“All the horses get treated with it once a week,” he volunteered.
While Pletcher took another call from yet another owner, I stood outside his office reading the contents on three clipboards. The bottom of the pages were held down by clips so they would shuffle in the breeze.
The clipboards held three color-coded spreadsheets. He probably learned the color-coding trick from the fastidious Lukas.
The first was a chart for the grooms, all 30 of them, each having about three or four to rub and do up before feed time later that morning and every morning, 24/7/365.
Next came the set list, horses scheduled to go to the track for work or maybe just to hack around. The instructions were spelled out.
Twenty four horses would jog this day, 43 were scheduled to gallop, and another 28 would be shed walked. They were listed on the clipboard designated as the Day Board.
I couldn’t tell what the other two were supposed to do.
Between Barns 11 and 12 was what you’d envision to be a “yard.” It looked all very European-like. Sets came and went, grooms with hoses and buckets of sudsy water washed away the morning’s dust, the sweaty grime while other handlers held the shank, keeping the horse calm and his head in the process when necessary.
Dunkirk arrived in this world last spring, developed “a shin,” a minor ailment common to two-year-olds, was sent back to the farm for R & R before returning in late summer. He had his first breeze in October.
“We were high on him from that first breeze,” the trainer said. “He went in :36 like this,” Pletcher putting one hand on top of the other--like gripping a baseball bat--while he made a motion to indicate how one might hold something back, preventing it from doing too much, too soon.
“Then another :36, and another. To show that kind of speed with a pedigree meant to go long…
“But the important work is the first time you go five-eighths, that’s where you begin to separate, and it was the same thing. He does everything the same way.”
“He’s done everything we’ve asked, and he’s done it easily. We started him out going seven-eighths, that’s not easy. Then we brought him back at a mile and an eighth and he won by almost five again. Now he has to take the next step.”
Pletcher is confident he will, although “you wouldn’t want a very good horse like Jimmy’s [Jerkens] out there loose on an easy lead.”
Pletcher entered a horse named Europe, owned by the same people, to keep the pace honest. At $2-million-plus, he’s believed to be the most expensive rabbit in racing history. But he’s no cinch to start. Pletcher just wanted to keep his options open.
And you need to win this for the earnings, don’t you?
“Second’s worth one-fifty [thousand], and that might be enough.”
And if not?
“I won’t rush him just to make the Derby. There’s always the Preakness.”
The visit was ending and I looked around one last time. “When you were starting out back in ‘97, did you ever envision an operation like this? How do you manage to stay focused?”
“I wasn’t thinking about anything like this. It’s a challenge.”
The following day, I was telling a horseman I know about the kind of focus it takes to run an organization of that size at the highest level.
“I think Todd could run IBM if he wanted,” he said.
Written by John Pricci
Friday, March 20, 2009
Jerkens, Quality Road Headed in Right Direction
Hallandale, Fla., March 19,2009--How good can you read a road map? Well, neither can I. Because if you miss the exit for Florida’s Turnpike just west of Fort Lauderdale, you wind up on Route 75.
And if you’ve never traveled on 75 before, know that it takes roughly an eighth of a tank of gas to get from one exit from the next. The locals call this stretch of road Alligator Gator which, of course, eliminated any chance of stopping to use a Call Box.
Anyone who’s seen Apocalypse Now
more than once knows that you never get out of the boat, in my case, the rented Matrix. Besides, who are you gonna’ call, Ponce de Leon?
Just as well, anyway. Was heading to Palm Meadows to visit with Jimmy Jerkens, who’s having some fun these days with a talented three-year-old named Quality Road. The big winner of the Fountain of Youth just might carry Jerkens all the way to his first Derby.
My circuitous journey took me back to Gulfstream Park, where Quality Road was scheduled for paddock schooling between the first and second races.
Finally, after the second race field of conditioned allowance fillies and mares left the ring, in came Jerkens followed closely by the colt and school-mate.
Following several turns of the ring, Jerkens ordered both horses to be put in adjacent stalls, where they stood quietly for several minutes, not turning a hair, in backstretch lingo. In the meantime, we talked.
Jerkens reiterated that when Quality Road came to him last summer, he was big, backward, awkward and lazy. “I didn’t even bring him to Saratoga.”
Quality Road finally had his first breeze last September and didn’t show anything special, if he showed anything at all. But in October, about six to eight weeks before making his first start on the Remsen undercard, the light bulb went on.
“After that he learned quickly,” Jerkens said. He was getting stronger and faster with every breeze, until the light bulb went on for the trainer, too. “It looked like he could really run.”
On November 29, he showed the rest of the world he could run, leading at every pole while setting an honest, pressured pace, until he drew off from 12 rivals and winning by nearly three lengths in 1:16-flat, race-horse time.
Of greater significance was the way he distributed his energy, running fast and evenly paced, earning an excellent speed figure by anyone’s measure, tipping his hand that more might be in the offing. He didn’t run again until January 10 at Gulfstream when he finished second to explosive Theregoesjojo after breaking last of 12.
Yesterday’s schooling schedule was unscheduled when the week began. Badly needed torrential rains deposited from five to eight inches of precipitation across a wide swath of South Florida forcing Jerkens to cancel an important scheduled work.
“We lost some training time with him. I had hoped to work him twice, this week and next, then we got mud.”
So why this?
“I school horses before every big race and this will keep his head on the game. He’ll get more out of paddocking than a [slow] gallop on a bad track.”
As Quality Road stood inside stall #9 in the Gulfstream walking ring, Jerkens was finalizing a plan.
“He’ll work a good three-quarters [of a mile] on Saturday and gallop out a strong seven-eighths. Then I might blow him out a fast quarter-mile the day before the race.”
If that regimen sounds familiar, it should. It was used often--even on race day--by Jerkens’ father, Hall of Famer Allen Jerkens, for whom Jimmy worked 20 years, 1977 to 1997, before striking out on his own.
And anyone who watched the assistant trainer manage that shedrow for 10 New York winters while “The Chief” brought the good stock to Florida knew it was only a matter of time before the younger Jerkens also became on of the game‘s elite trainers.
So does he think he has the horse to beat in next Saturday’s Florida Derby?
“I guess you’d have to think so. The way he ran last time…he was strong all the way.”
Not known for contributing locker room material, this was great expectations.
No matter how the Florida Derby turns out, it will be Quality Road’s last start before May 2nd. Where he will train, however, is very much up in the air.
“I’d like to keep him down here as long as I can, [Palm Meadows] stays open to the end of April.” Then what, Kentucky?
“No, probably bring him back to New York and go to Kentucky from there.”
I wondered why not Keeneland, where it’s quieter than Churchill and the Polytrack surface would help the colt stay fit.
“I don’t know. I don’t know why they even needed [Polytrack]. It’s hard to believe that you can’t keep a track safe.”
Wherever Jerkens prepares Quality Road for the Kentucky Derby, the bet is he won’t need a road map to find the winners’ circle.
Written by John Pricci
Thursday, March 19, 2009
South Florida Diary: The Intrepid Traveler
Hallandale, Fla., March 18,2009--Don’t know how much traveling you’ve done lately. The last time I was away from home was Breeders’ Cup, and although the market crash of 2008 occurred a month prior, it was hard to tell how much effect the recession had on the people surrounding me.
It felt like status quo. Then fall turned into winter and with it came the second crash. The Dow plunged 700 points in a week. First time around, everybody’s 401K was almost halved. By last week all portfolios officially had become 201Ks.
The 8:40 a.m. Southwest flight from Albany to Fort Lauderdale did not have a single empty seat. It was a little after 7 a.m. and there was a normal amount of pedestrian traffic inside Albany International. Normally a Jet Blue guy out of JFK, I decided to forsake the three-hour drive for a little less leg room on another carrier.
I will say that every working person I encountered was trying harder. It seems many people have a newly found appreciation for work, any work. In this economy, there’s no such thing as a McJob. Work has value again.
Too bad the price to rediscover what my father’s generation referred to as a Horatio Alger story--young people from humble beginnings becoming successful if they worked hard enough--had to come at such a high cost.
Maybe now when young people refer to someone as “old school,” they’ll have a little more appreciation for the term. Sometimes old school is the best education.
Most airlines these days are ticket-less. Southwest is kind of seat-less, too. No, you don’t stand throughout the flight but seats are not assigned. First come, first served. Passengers are herded into three groups, A or B or C, and you’re given a number approximating when that subset or A or B or C is allowed to board.
This is known as progress.
But it all went rather smoothly, I admit, and it was peanuts and soft drinks for all my friends. Interesting what a little competition and hard times can do. Suddenly, everyone’s Avis--you know, trying harder.
The flight was good, albeit a little bumpy on the descent owing to a typical South Florida squall. “First day it rained all winter,” informed Ron Nicoletti upon my arrival laternat Gulfstream Park.
Nicoletti, along with Rollie Hoyt, comprise Gulfstream’s simulcasting team “The Odds Couple.” They have good chemistry, don’t overload a player’s senses, and pick their share of winners.
It was good to see them, as it was veteran publicist Jack Will, who bleeds newspaper ink and probably has forgotten more than I could ever remember about the game.
Actually, I was lucky to get there at all. Why? Well, let me put it this way: If the service customers got at the Hertz counter inside the Ft. Lauderdale terminal always was like it was yesterday, Avis needn’t have tried so hard.
Horseplayers know about these things because pain comes with the territory. The queue snaked around three times--I was riding the third snake--there were seven agents behind the counter, which seemed like a good number, they kept their heads down and worked hard. Still, every transaction seemed to take 10 to 15 minutes. It was insufferable.
Finally, I arrived at the counter. Desha did her job, and she did it well. But computers don’t recognize debit cards, which I had forgotten until I arrived at the counter. After her computer performed a credit
check on my debit
card, the one with the cash in it, I was deemed worthy unless, unknown to me, my bank had failed sometime between 8:40 and 11:45 a.m.
“Thank you for your patience sir,” she said. “No worries, you were only doing your job,” I rationalized.
“Now if you’ll take a seat, we’ll call you when your car is ready.”
“We don’t have any cars right now and we’re sorry for the inconvenience.” Born in Corona, NY, I had no choice but to ask for a supervisor.
But the supervisor had no choice other than to repeat what Desha had already told me, only in hushed tones accompanied by what she hoped were approving nods.”
I took my seat. Fortunately, the estimate was accurate and I was inside my Toyota Matrix within 20 minutes. I heard of Toyota, not Matrix, but it was all good.
Found a parking spot relatively easily, walked into the Tiki Bar section on the north side of the building when I heard track announcer Larry Collmus say “all the races are on the main track today…”
Which meant I would not be betting on Saar Treaty in the eighth race, coming off a turf decline line with competitive figures, a switch to Alan Garcia, at early line odds of 8-1.
Instead, I bet the Aqueduct feature, as advertised on HRI, Jessica Is Back to win at 4-1, keying her in the exacta with the logical Say Toba Sandy and Sunday Geisha.
What a dirty, rotten beat! Jessica broke like a shot beneath Rosie Napravnik, taking an early lead until the speedy Sunday Geisha with Rajiv Maragh raced by and tightened it up a bit on them--just race riding--forcing Rosie to take a stalking position once they straightened away into the backstretch.
Forced to move a tad earlier than she probably wanted, Rosie opened a clear lead with Jessica and was holding the logical favorite Say Toba Sandy safe, until she weakened in the final 70 yards, beaten a jump before the wire.
Thankful that a small profit was had in the exacta and trifecta pools.
Before returning tomorrow, I’ll drive the Matrix up to Palm Meadows, hopefully speak with Jimmy Jerkens and get a peak at Quality Road. If there’s time, I’ll head over to Palm Beach Downs, about 15 minutes away, and see if Todd Pletcher can tout me on Dunkirk.
Let you know tomorrow how that all turned out. Now it’s time for some Cuban pork, plantains, black beans and rice, topped off with a little flan and Café Cubano, before heading back up 95 to check into my hotel. I’m having a slight sense of dread.
BTW: Saar Treaty stayed in the race after it was rescheduled to the main track. He won by a pole, over sealed slop, at 5-1. I won’t make a big deal of it. That’s why this game is tough. You live by, and with, the decisions you make. It’s 11 days to Florida Derby. Need to stay positive.
Written by John Pricci