by Johnny D
April 19, 2018
You don’t need me to tell you that Todd Pletcher can train a racehorse. It’s obvious. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld might describe it as a ‘known known.’ Pletcher’s won Eclipse Awards as North America’s top trainer 7 times before, 4 in consecutive seasons. In a sport where nothing, and I emphasize, nothing, is certain, the impeccably-groomed conditioner is a first-ballot Hall-of-Fame shoe-in! A stone-cold lock. A lead-pipe cinch.
Sometimes, we take ‘exceptional’ for granted. It’s then that we require a reminder. The one we got this Triple Crown prep season--punctuated Saturday when Magnum Moon ran away and hid from Arkansas Derby foes—shall suffice. That triumph, as tweeted by DRF’s Jay Privman, announced Pletcher as the first trainer to win 4—Arkansas Derby, Xpressbet Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby and Wood Memorial—out of 6 of the biggest Derby preps (Blue Grass and Santa Anita Derby are the other two) with 4 different horses in the same year! For good measure, as Privman noted, Pletcher also trained the winners of the Holy Bull and Rebel.
Yeah, he gets good horses. Lots of them. That’s not by accident. He’s earned the privilege. Nothing succeeds like success. He wins because he wins. And that prospect is easier when shedrow inhabitants begin careers on the short lists of every Tom, Dick and Harry wearing khaki pants and holding a sales catalogue. Plus, each season, Pletcher finds a suitable collection of homebreds vanned in his direction.
Pletcher’s 2018 Kentucky Derby Fab-Four lineup includes two graduates of the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale: Vino Rosso (Wood), $410,000 and Magnum Moon, $380,000. Audible (Xpressbet Florida Derby) went for $500,000 at the 2017 Fasig-Tipton March 2-year-olds in training sale at Gulfstream Park. Noble Indy (Louisiana Derby) is the sole homebred representative from WinStar Farm LLC.
While those auction digits seem bargains alongside BC Juvenile Turf and runaway UAE Derby winner Mendelssohn--$3 million out of the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale--they ain’t hay. And they aren’t the only sales gems and homebreds that were delivered to Pletcher along with silver spoons in their mouths. Attrition is part of the game. Critics wonder if trainers with massive rosters, like Pletcher’s, don’t experience a recurring, seasonal Pyrrhic victory? The answer to that question lies with owners to provide when they choose which trainers should receive expensive, promising youngsters.
Bob Baffert, with 21 less career Derby starters than Todd Pletcher and 2 more wins, enjoys a similar embarrassment of riches when it comes to racing stock. He, too, is deep in first-round draft choices each season. For example, Derby favorite Justify brought a cool $500,000 as a yearling at the Keeneland sale. Solomini seems a bargain out of the same auction at $210,000 and so does temporarily sidelined Derby hopeful McKinzie at $170,000, also purchased at Keeneland. That Baffert has had the incredible good fortune to train Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, BC Classic and Dubai World Cup winner Arrogate and the auspicious Justify in rapid-fire succession is unreal. It’s also a tribute to his horsemanship. They say anyone can train a good horse. That a loaded gun is dangerous in anyone’s hands. Well, that’s certainly true. However, in the hands of a marksman, the weapon elevates from dangerous to lethal.
Before Pletcher first won the Derby in 2010 with Super Saver his dismal 0-24 record in the race was a talking point. The victory didn’t quiet critics, Pletcher entered last year’s Derby with a 45: 1-2-3 mark. Of course, he responded by winning roses with Always Dreaming. Now, viewed in a somewhat different light, Pletcher’s beneath-the-twin-spires mark is a more respectable 2 wins in the last 24.
Even when Pletcher was failing in Louisville’s main event, supporters maintained that he actually was overachieving. And they may have been correct. In the beginning Pletcher’s 2-year-olds were bred to appear in the afternoon breathing fire. And they did. They won races first-out at Saratoga in bunches. Took 2-year-old graded stakes by the bushel. Even stretched out at 3 to win important Derby prep races. However, when Derby-time rolled around, they laid more eggs than a coop full of chickens. Still, Pletcher managed to conquer the final leg of the Triple Crown at Belmont with Rags to Riches, a filly in 2007, and Palace Malice, in 2013.
Well-schooled early by father Jake, mother Jerrie and mentor D. Wayne Lukas, like the greats before him, Pletcher has improved on his already wicked game. He’s learned what it takes to not only get to the Kentucky Derby, but to actually win it. Now, he’s getting slightly different types of horses to train. Ultra-expensive stock, no doubt, but with pedigrees more suitable to getting a mile and one-quarter in the race affectionately known as ‘the fastest two minutes in sports.’
Last year Pletcher won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes (Tapwrit) with two different horses! This year, things were relatively quiet (for him) during the Saratoga 2-year-old mosh pit. Instead of five-eighths and a cloud of dust at the Spa in August it was seven furlongs at Aqueduct with leaves on the ground. Check it out: Audible didn’t start until September 27 at Belmont going six and one-half furlongs and he finished third! Vino Rosso won a seven-furlong maiden race at Aqueduct in November. Noble Indy won first time out by nearly nine lengths going seven furlongs in December at Gulfstream. Magnum Moon, winner of the Arkansas Derby, will attempt to become the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win the Kentucky Derby without racing at 2.
What’s also a bit astounding is that Todd Pletcher is a young man. He’s 50! (That’s what happens when you reach a certain age, you refer to 50-year-olds as ‘young’) What might he accomplish by the time he’s banked Baffert’s years (65) or that of D. Wayne Lukas (82)?
You don’t need me to tell you that Todd Pletcher can train a racehorse. But don’t you appreciate that I reminded you of how well he does it?