Sunday, May 07, 2017

Todd Pletcher by any other name: “Carnac the Magnificent”

LAS VEGAS--After all the calculations, the special training techniques, the gooey going--all of it--in the final analysis the best horse won. The notion that Always Dreaming is the best of his generation no longer is up for debate.

Just as he had in Tampa, and twice in Hallandale, Always Dreaming reaffirmed his ability to go a distance and win with authority. He took his talents to Louisville and did it again in front of the whole world.

As much as it was validation for the scary good colt and his band of believers, the cheering led by a couple of boys from Brooklyn, it was confirmation that his trainer is a certain future first-ballot Hall of Famer.

#oneforfortyfive #not

In fact, let’s call it one-for-one--as in the only time the public thought Todd Pletcher should win the Kentucky Derby.

Appropriately, his second Derby victory came with long-time collaborator Johnny Velazquez, A Hall of Famer who still finds the sweet spot anytime he’s in the tack.

And so their colt went from rank and tough to control one weekend to Kentucky Derby champion the next. Being obstreperous is a big issue.

Just ask Graham Motion about the headstrong Irish War Cry before yesterday’s race. Ask Mark Casse about the history of Classic Empire. A horse’s mind is a terrible thing to waste. Sometimes it needs reining in.

Too tough to control? No problem, get exercise rider Nick Bush on the phone--and get me a set of draw reins.

In less than a week, Always Dreaming was still his good-feeling self but was much more comported in the parade postward, his energy evident but controlled.

Just as the 49-year-old showed a master’s hand four years ago with Palace Malice, he did so again with Always Dreaming.

Recall that the 2013 Belmont Stakes winner, a virtual runoff in Derby 139, Pletcher used the five weeks between classics to manage his colt’s speed by removing blinkers. Similarly, his latest project literally needed handling.

Last Monday, Bush and the new reins were in place and by Saturday the colt was in Churchill’s winners’ circle, surrounded by all the connections and his emotional trainer, overwhelmed by the moment.

Tears of joy could not be hidden behind rainy-day sunglasses, as if the normally measured Pletcher did not want to allow visitors a peak into his soul.

“These were not crocodile tears,” NBC’s Kenny Rice later confirmed. “He was flat out, seriously, big-time crying.”

Pletcher’s unflappability is legendary. There is the all-too familiar trainer- speak that’s employed on the racetrack every day, then there’s Pletcher-speak which deals much more in specifics.

Always thoughtful, most often illuminating, he turns pre- and post-race interviews into teachable moments for fans, horseplayers and media alike.

Yes, Pletcher’s equivocating is sometimes maddening, “sort of.” But it’s as if everything in his equine world is just fine and he doesn’t want to run the risk of inviting bad karma by tempting racing’s fickle gods of fate.

We have stated this before, as have many others. If he were not a horseman, Todd Pletcher would be the CEO of a company in any field of his choosing.

He has taken the lessons earned from his stewardship as a Wayne Lukas assistant and raised that art form to another level, becoming the most emulated horseman in the game.

We don’t remember exactly how many years ago it was when we noticed that he worked his willing and able horses precisely every seven days.

A lot like NFL coaches, owners with other trainers must have noticed the same thing and now seemingly all trainers have established regular training schedules, many of them at the highest levels of the sport.

Without good and sound horses this would not be possible, of course. But now all successful trainers employ routine workout patterns that work best for them; every six days, or every eight days, or a combination of the two.

Pletcher’s attention to detail is obvious; any observable moment in the walking ring is proof of that.

Make no mistake: He is as guilty as any horseman when it comes to adhering to racing’s prime directive: Establish share-holder value by winning the proscribed events then say all the right things to protect that reputation.

His young pupils are almost cookie-cutter types, as almost each one is a fine, athletic-looking individual. In the main, there never seems to be a hair out of place. But it’s more than just that, too; it’s job performance.

In Uncle Mo’s three-year-old season, as the 2010 juvenile champion was being prepared for his assault on the Kentucky Derby, we drove north to Palm Meadows one Sunday morning to watch him work.

Back then, Pletcher’s horses were stabled in Boynton Beach, a very long stone’s throw from his current winter stabling address, the more bucolic and much quieter Palm Beach Downs.

It was a beautiful morning and we were on the clocker’s stand awaiting his arrival when all those teams of workers bearing the initials T A P on the saddlecloth entered the backside of the hectic PMM training track.

Team after team breezed by. Pletcher would follow them on the gallop-out before finally removing the binoculars from his eyes to peer down at his watch, conferring and verifying the time with assistant trainer Tristan Barry.

Virtually a minute or two later, the next team would begin their trials and that’s how his morning went, just like clockwork.

Meanwhile, I was around Uncle Mo only once in 2010 and then from a distance, the press box at Churchill Downs for the 2010 Breeders’ Cup. I confess that I would never be able to pick him out of a lineup.

In a break between sets, I leaned over and, in practically a whisper, I asked the trainer to tell me when his star pupil was on the racetrack.

Without averting his gaze through the binoculars and without hesitation, he said “he’s in the third set coming out now, he’s the one on the outside.”

Having had barely enough time to notice, I said “whoa, how’d you know that?” He put the glasses down, turned around, looked me in the eye and said: “I know everything,” before turning trackside and raising his binoculars again.

You’ll just have to take my word on this: There wasn’t a hint of braggadocio in his words, only reassurance, confident that he’s in control. Ask his owners and they probably will tell you the same thing.

I’ve known Pletcher since he was Darrell Wayne’s assistant and was at Gulfstream Park in February of 1996 when he saddled his first career winner, Majestic Number.

There have been well over 4,000 more since, including seven Eclipse Awards as America’s leading trainer. Clearly, he must know something.

As Paul Cornman and I passed away the time awaiting the Derby 143 horses to step onto the track to the strains of “that song,” as the jockeys call it, Paul told me a story.

“You remember the late clocker, Cole Rosen? Well, it was toward the end of his life. He no longer was working and was having a tough time of it.

“I have a friend who knows them both, and he’s very close with Todd. He told me that Todd called Cole, asked him what he needed, anything at all, and that he would be highly insulted to learn that Cole had reached out to someone else first.”

Just know that if Rosen had, Pletcher, the man who sees everything, would have known that, too. That’s the part no one sees behind the imperturbable exterior.

May 7, 2017

Coming Tuesday: Our take on Derby 143 itself and other thoughts from the desert

Written by John Pricci

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