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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing

KNOWN FOR MAIDEN-BREAKING JUVENILES, PLETCHER ODDS-ON TO ENTER HALL ON DEBUT

DEL REY BEACH, FL, April 5, 2021  —  The hour was a tad late for morning workouts when we arrived at the Palm Beach Downs training facility on Palm Beach Boulevard, that section of Atlantic Blvd. one short block west of Route 441.

As you enter the facility, about a half dozen barns are lined up along a narrow dirt road, several belonging to a horseman whose 25 years as a trainer makes him eligible for entrance into Thoroughbred Racing’s Hall of Fame at the newly re-imagined Museum on Union Avenue.

“It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years,” Pletcher said, reflecting on a career than spans a quarter-century. Harder still is finding a solitary Hall of Fame voter who will not include him on their ballots due in a week.

Pletcher acknowledges he gets the best bloodstock that 1-percenters can buy. In addition, big-time nurseries supply him with runners in which they maintain a share, whole or in part, for racing and further development. WinStar Farm leaps to mind instantly.

But a trainer managing the world’s best bloodstock has a mandate to produce. And Pletcher does just that, turning young stock not only into champions but into highly productive sires whose offspring often keep those championship genes alive.

“I don’t know the exact figure but I think it’s a little over 80,” said Pletcher when asked how many of his trainees retired to enjoy highly productive stud careers.

Pletcher’s words are measured, carefully chosen and thoughtful, not very different from any successful President or CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

Discipline and attention to detail have been the keys to his success, and his manner is no different than the first time I met an assistant trainer while searching for a quote from the boss, Darrel Wayne Lukas.

Back in the day, when racing beats were actually a thing, a turf writer chomping at the editorial bit in search of a story, could always depend on “the coach” to fill his or her notebook. That morning Lukas was on his pony supervising workouts, so I spoke with his top assistant.

The next time I saw Pletcher close-up was at the 1996 Gulfstream Park meet, aka ‘the old Gulfstream’. Pletcher recently had gone out on his own, leaving Lukas’ employ, but not without some trepidation.

“Wayne was loaded with two-year-olds, and it was a great job. But I made a decision that it was time to take a shot. That first year I was stabled at Hialeah with seven head, three or four owned by my dad.”

That was a meeting when a 10-pound apprentice named Paco Lopez caught the eye, and one morning in search of a winner I saw that Pletcher had a first-time starter, Majestic Number, entered in an early double race, leading rider Jerry Bailey in the boot.

And, so, on January 26, 1996, Pletcher saddled his first winner. That was the first of many majestic numbers: Six years later, he saddled his 3,000th winner at the track where his career began. By the time this year ends, he will have saddled more than 5,100 winners.

When Bourbonic crossed the finish line first at 72-1 in Saturday’s Wood Memorial, nailing stablemate Dynamic One by a neck, it was Pletcher’s sixth win in a race that was a springboard to four Triple Crown champions. The Wood win came one week after Known Agenda earned him a record sixth Florida Derby title.

In 25 years, Pletcher’s horses have earned a record $402 million. His 11 champions have helped him earn seven Eclipse Awards, a record, his recent 17th meet title at Gulfstream Park is also unique. Pletcher has won the Kentucky Derby twice, the Belmont thrice, and 11 Breeders’ Cups.

It must be exhausting.           

“We’ve been blessed,” Pletcher told the Gulfstream press staff at the conclusion of the Championship Meet.  “A lot of people put a lot of hours and effort into it and we’ve got a great group of owners and horses and staff making it happen…  

“We’ve been very fortunate. [The Hall of Fame nomination] is certainly not an individual achievement as much as it is a team achievement. I’m very grateful to everyone that’s contributed.”

Pletcher attributes his success to three horses: his first winner, More Than Ready and Jersey Girl.

After Majestic Number broke maiden, Pletcher entered her back in a stakes at Hialeah where she finished second, but the day stands out because he met the late Cot Campbell in the paddock. Campbell was the horse partnership pioneer and the founder of Dogwood Stable.

Not long thereafter, Campbell began sending Pletcher well-bred stock. Their success gave confidence to other prominent owners and Pletcher’s own stock began to rise.

He made it a point to credit Campbell the morning after the team upset Derby winner Orb and Preakness winner Oxbow to win the 2013 Belmont Stakes with Palace Malice.

“More Than Ready raised our profile when he followed up his maiden win by winning three straight stakes and after became a top sire,” said Pletcher outside his Palm Beach Downs office,. “Jersey Girl gave us our first Grade 1 winner.”

Pletcher is well aware of the atmosphere surrounding the sport’s future. “We were fortunate to attract some new fans when other sports were shut down last year, but I know the public has concerns about the health of the horses and about what happens to them at the end of their careers.

“I think independent oversight can be a good thing. The best detection is prevention and if testing can be done to establish baselines in the blood, it should make it easier to detect and isolate what shouldn’t be there.

“That model, along with the phase out of Lasix and the great strides the industry has made with all the after-care programs are models worth pursuing. We can build on that.”

Ten days ago, on the morning of March 27, Todd Pletcher had no Kentucky Derby prospects. By nightfall on April 3, he had four three-year-olds among the Derby’s Top 20 qualifiers.

As stated, it’s one thing to have an opportunity to train the best stock and lots of it, but it’s another to produce in such singular fashion. When achievement is so extraordinary, it rates the kind of honor that accompanies a Hall of Fame induction on debut.

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5 Responses

  1. Tony,

    I think the most fascinating aspect, and one I should have mentioned in the piece–but it was about him, not the media guy–is that he took the elements of what mentor Wayne Lukas taught him in terms of revolutionizing the sport and raised it to another level. His workout regimen. like the NFL’s Flavor of the Month coach who just won a Super Bowl. is the most emulated I’ve seen in this game.

  2. I think the coolest part of this is that Pletcher gets in while D. Wayne Lukas is still an active trainer. I picture them both overseeing their workouts in the morning and then later on walking over together so that Wayne can induct him.

    That would be awesome. It should happen no other way.

  3. Doc, if those who plan the Hall of Fame ceremonies don’t coordinate something like you suggest, shame on them; it’s a terrific idea. Generally, they do a good job at the ceremonies and I’m sure someone will think as you do. I hope to get to Saratoga this year, and I hope I can be there that weekend.

    Mark Casse, among others, was voted in last year but of there there were no ceremonies. This year, the H of F ceremonies are a two-for. That’s pretty cool.

  4. This is a personal email I received from Michael Veitch, Racing Hall of Fame Historian. It is posted here with his permission

    “[Todd] really is a supreme professional.

    During the 38 years I was an active turf writer for The Saratogian, mostly covering the NYRA circuit with several trips to Woodbine and, of course, a few Breeders’ Cups, I always tried, especially during Saratoga, to interview as many trainers as possible.

    My goal was to bring as many different interviews to the readers as possible. Of course, if Shug or Todd or the late P.G. Johnson or Scotty Schulhofer had one of the choices for the Alabama, Whitney or Travers, then that was automatic.

    But there would also be the trainer with virtually no chance to win one of our prizes.

    I once interviewed a trainer from France who brought a horse here with one victory in a handful of starts, a guy I had never heard of aiming for one of our turf stakes. The horse had career earnings of $30,000 or so.

    So I asked him the obvious: “Why did you decide to come to Saratoga?”

    He replied: “That $30,000 made it possible for me to at least see Saratoga; I might not get another chance.”

    To me, that was a priceless quote, and I’m pretty sure it was for the readers, too.

    With Todd, I learned to approach him in the paddock the day before I wanted to interview him, and ask him for some time at the barn. He would tell me when to show up, and he never failed to be on time, and never skirted around any question. He invited me into the office and he took no calls while we were talking.

    For a guy with 300 horses up and down the east coast, I just found that really admirable.

    What a marvelous member of the Hall of Fame!”

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