Each and every win matters: Pletcher closing in on 5,000th career victory
by Ryan Martin
Some victories for a trainer always stand out. From triumphs in American Classic engagements to Breeders' Cup scores to prestigious Grade 1 wins, trips to the winner's circle leave indelible impressions. But the wins that bring less fanfare - allowance, optional claimers and maiden races - are still the backbone of any long-time conditioner's ledger, and trainer Todd Pletcher can claim a body of work on par with some of the sport's all-time greats as he approaches career win No. 5,000.
In nearly 25 years of conditioning thoroughbreds at the highest level, Pletcher has set a high bar for any subsequent aspiring trainer. Since notching his first win in 1996, Pletcher has saddled winners of five American Classics and 11 Breeders' Cup races as part of 161 total Grade 1 wins. The seven-time Eclipse Award winner for Outstanding Trainer will soon secure a spot in the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame upon gaining eligibility in 2021.
Just seven trainers have reached the 5,000-win plateau. In reflecting on the wins that resonate the most, Pletcher said the ones that stand out aren't necessarily the most obvious guesses, such as his two Kentucky Derby victories [Super Saver, 2010; Always Dreaming, 2017], a trio of Belmont Stakes trophies [Rags to Riches, 2007; Palace Malice, 2013; Tapwrit, 2017] or his Breeders' Cup haul.
"I've found that when you reach these milestone victories, it gives you an appreciation for just how special each and every win is," Pletcher said. "There are certainly career highlights that might be Grade 1 races or Classics, but sometimes as a trainer you get just as much enjoyment out of having a first timer prepared properly to win on debut. Or maybe a horse that has been a challenge and you get them there to a spot to win a race. I think it gives you an opportunity to appreciate the body of work and also each and every owner, each and every horse and all the staff behind you along the way."
Pletcher said he still holds his top-level triumphs in high regard. Especially the 2007 Belmont Stakes, where Rags to Riches made history as only the third filly to win the "Test of a Champion." Despite stumbling out of the gate, losing ground on the backstretch and engaging in a dramatic stretch battle with Curlin, Rags to Riches was able to keep the eventual 2007-08 Horse of the Year at bay under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez. The filly's famous score provided the famed Pletcher-Velazquez partnership their first respective win in a Triple Crown race.
"At that point in our stable's development, that was the first Classic win and to come about in such a historic way - with her being the first filly to win in over 100 years - and the rollercoaster of emotions during the race with the stumble where you thought you had no chance to putting a head in front and thinking you did have a chance and then Curlin fighting back in a stretch long duel," Pletcher recalled. "A lot goes through your mind in two and a half minutes. It was a broad range of emotions. The first Kentucky Derby is way up there and I got a lot of enjoyment from the Belmont win by Palace Malice, which was our first Classic win for Dogwood Stable and Mr. [Cothran] Campbell, who was a big supporter from the beginning."
Velazquez has won more than 6,000 races in his illustrious career, with more than 1,800 coming aboard Pletcher-trained horses, including that famous Belmont.
"It was an incredible race, especially for a horse to do what she did that day," Velazquez said. "It was equally special for the both of us, since it was a first win in a Triple Crown race for not just him but for me, as well. After this long, I still ride for him. I'm still a part of the team and I'm very grateful for that."
Pletcher has a proven track record in conditioning quality horses who have parlayed their talent into their post-racing career as stallions.
In 2018, former Pletcher trainees Quality Road and More Than Ready led all North American stallions in Grade 1 victories with five apiece. The late Scat Daddy, also conditioned by Pletcher, was the leading producer of Grade 1 winners in 2016 and became the leading sire in overall graded stakes wins the following two years.
Additionally, nine former members of the Pletcher brigade have gone on to produce Eclipse Award winners across seven divisions, with champion-producer Uncle Mo being an Eclipse Award winner himself when being crowned 2010 Champion 2-Year-Old.
"We've developed some successful stallions that have been able to go out there and make an impact on the breed, we take a lot of pride in that as well," Pletcher said.
Mike Repole, who owned Uncle Mo, praised Pletcher for his talent to train horses able to compete at the top of multiple divisions. Pletcher has conditioned horses to Eclipse Award wins in six different divisions, including three Champion Older Males like 2019 Breeders' Cup Classic winner Vino Rosso, who Repole also owned.
"He does it in every category," Repole said. "Dirt, turf, colts, fillies, there's no one better than Todd. He's successful in all divisions. When you look at the overall business, Todd knows it in and out. As an entrepreneur, I respect people who have a strong work ethic and think outside of the box. Todd may have the title 'trainer,' but no matter what he decided to do in life, he would be successful at it. He has the business mind set and sees things differently."
Repole said Pletcher is more than a business partner. He's a member of the family.
"When I first entered the game with a couple of horses, it was strictly a trainer-client relationship," Repole said. "Since then, it's gone from trainer-client, to partner, to friendship, to family. We've had an amazing run together and it's been fun. We had Uncle Mo become a champion in 2010 and almost 10 years later Vino Rosso wins the Classic. He's the best. He's either Michael Jordan or LeBron James."
Jack Wolf of Starlight Racing, who campaigned multiple Grade 1-winner and champion producing sire Harlan's Holiday with Pletcher, said the conditioner's ability to develop so many eventual quality sires is one of many reasons why Pletcher is a master at what he does.
"It's another credit to how good he is on all phases of the training game," Wolf said. "It's unbelievable how many good stallions that he's produced. He's getting the offspring of these stallions out of the mares he's trained and it is a credit to how good a trainer he is. He's not just there to win races, he's concerned about the whole campaign of the horse. From its racing career and beyond."
Wolf, who also partnered with Pletcher in campaigning champions Ashado [2004 Champion 3-Year-Old Filly, 2005 Champion Older Mare] and Shanghai Bobby [2012 Champion 2-Year-Old Colt], praised Pletcher for his truthfulness and ability to understand how to place a horse in a winning position.
"I think that's another quality that makes Todd stand out. He's honest with the owners," Wolf said. "He knows where to place a horse to win, whether it's a maiden special weight, a $25,000 claiming race, or a stakes race. He has good judgment in terms of where a horse belongs. You don't get to almost 5,000 wins without having that quality."
Pletcher's win output has produced a metronome-like consistency, achieving approximately one thousand victories each four-year stretch, starting with his 1,000th career win in 2004. He has since achieved a new milestone quadrennially, with his 4,000th career victory coming on March 18, 2016 with first-time starter Eagle Scout at Gulfstream Park.
"He's right on schedule to do it every four years, which is remarkable," Wolf said.
"The one thing we take pride in is that we've been very consistent, and we've been able to operate at a high level for a while," Pletcher added. "You never take anything for granted in this business, and certainly couldn't do it without a lot of great owners that have supported us for a number of years. You're only as good as the horses you're training."
Pletcher, who has campaigned a total of 11 Eclipse Award-winning champions, said no matter how many good horses a trainer has, there will always be more losses than there are wins.
"This business will keep you grounded. No matter how well you're doing, you're still going to have challenges and the losses are going to accumulate much faster than the wins," Pletcher said. "I think the one thing you try to do is not get too high off the wins and even more difficult sometimes is not to get too low off the losses. You have to try and come in and do the job consistently to the best of your abilities and hopefully, it falls into place from there."
Velazquez, who guided Always Dreaming to Kentucky Derby glory in 2017, praised Pletcher's relentless dedication in maintaining one of the most competitive stables in the country.
"He's such a hard-working guy," Velazquez said. "Day after day, week after week and month after month, he's there at the barn and he's dedicated. It's hard to stay and continue at that pace for this long."
Pletcher's work ethic and attention to detail has trickled down to his former assistants, such as Mike McCarthy, who went out on his own in 2014 and has conditioned five Grade 1 winners after serving as Pletcher's longtime primary assistant through career highlights including the Kentucky Derby victory with Super Saver.
When asked of Pletcher's greatest attribute, McCarthy was unable to give an immediate answer. Not because he couldn't think of any, but because he said there are too many to name.
"I wouldn't know where to start. It's like asking what makes Michael Jordan so good," McCarthy said.
As Pletcher's righthand man through his most successful years to date, including 2007 where he amassed over $28 million in earnings, McCarthy has witnessed the conditioner's work ethic firsthand.
"I think it's just the fact that he has a desire to get up and give 100 percent every day to his owners, his horses, and his staff," McCarthy said. "To be able to balance all of that and raise a family shows what he's like as a person and is a credit to him. Everyone that works for Todd enjoys working for him and gets a lot out of it."
McCarthy said he appreciated Pletcher's ability to delegate responsibility during his time working in his barn.
"It's definitely one of his strongest suits," McCarthy said. "It takes an incredible amount of confidence to be able to send different people to oversee strings of horses in other places across the country and the ability to tell owners, 'check with my assistant' shows that he has faith in his staff. I can say that I've gotten so much out of working for Todd. For me, it's made a difference in my life."
Pletcher, in trying to encapsulate his success, said his philosophy has always been to try the absolute best with every horse under his care.
"We've always tried to do the very best we can with every horse we have the opportunity to train," Pletcher said. "And if that turns out to be a win in a maiden claiming race or a Classic win, if we brought the very best out of that horse's ability then we've done our job."