From his first career winner in 1996 to his 4,000th twenty winters later, Gulfstream Park has been very good to Todd Pletcher. He has won its signature race – the $1 million Florida Derby (G1) – four times, more than any single trainer, and it is where he stepped on stage to claim the last two of his record seven Eclipse Awards in 2013 and 2014.
Since finishing second to Mark Shuman's record-setting 87 victories in 2003, Pletcher has also won an unprecedented 14 consecutive Championship Meet training titles. He broke Hall of Famer Bill Mott's streak of six straight in 2010, and passed Arnold Winick's total with his 13th in 2016.
In a career that includes five Triple Crown race victories, 10 more in the Breeders' Cup and 10 horses with 11 year-end championships led by Hall of Famer Ashado, the 50-year-old Pletcher doesn't have to think long about where his South Florida success stands.
“I think it would have to rank up there pretty high, mainly just because it displays our consistency and commitment and it's a tribute to the entire staff,” Pletcher said. “A lot of the guys like Tristan Berry and Anthony Sciametta and Ginny DePasquale have been with me for every one of those 14 and some before that. That says a lot about the whole team and the organization and commitment. We've been fortunate to maintain the same clients over the years and without their support providing us with good horses we wouldn't be able to do it.”
Pletcher begins his quest for No. 15 with three horses entered on Saturday's 11-race Claiming Crown Day program that opens Gulfstream's 89-day Championship Meet – 2-year-old maidens Shanghai Jewel and Hyndford and three-time winner Songeur in the $125,000 Emerald. Both Shanghai Jewel and Songeur need at least one scratch to reach the starting gate.
Equibase statistics show Pletcher has won 876 races and nearly $43.7 million in purses at Gulfstream from 3,370 career starters. His first came with Majestic Number on Jan. 26, 1996, and Eagle Scout gave him No. 4,000 last March 18.
A total of 682 of those wins have come during his Championship Meet win streak, an average of nearly 49 per winter. He led the 2016-17 standings with 58 victories, and achieved a personal high of 72 in 2011-12.
“I think it's going to be challenging,” Pletcher said of his title defense. “We have sort of what I would describe as a rebuilding stable at the moment. Our success will largely depend on how our 2-year-olds turning three do. We're excited about trying to keep the streak going but we also appreciate how difficult it is to do.”
This year marked a slight departure for Pletcher, who maintained a string at Palm Beach Downs in Delray Beach throughout the spring and summer. A second, larger wave of horses arrived both there and at Gulfstream earlier this week.
“I wouldn't say it's really different than what we've done the last couple of years. The last couple of years we've come down right after Labor Day,” Pletcher said. “We've had some horses down here for a while and we're starting to bring a few more down to gear up for the big meet.
“Like always, it's an exciting time of year when you have 2-year-olds getting ready to turn three and a lot of important races coming up. We'll see,” he added. “The next 90 days are really critical in how the 2-turning-3-year-olds develop. We're all getting ready to learn a lot more about what kind of potential they have and what might be in store for them. It's always a fun time of the year.”
Tapwrit was one of the horses to arrive in Florida early last fall, breaking his maiden at Gulfstream Park West and winning the Pulpit Stakes on turf during the Championship Meet before going on to win the Belmont Stakes (G1) in June.
“It's that time of year when some of these 2-year-olds can really improve leaps and bounds and go from the maiden ranks to being on the Derby trail. We'll see how it shakes out,” Pletcher said. “We've got a little bit of everything, some early developing, some later developing some in between. I think the next couple months should be very interesting for everyone.”
The brightest of Pletcher's soon-to-be 3-year-old prospects is Robert LaPenta, Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Twin Creeks Racing Stables' Montauk, an impressive 11 ¼-length winner of his lone start Oct. 7 at Belmont Park.
Purchased for $850,000 as a 2-year-old in training in April, Montauk is by Medaglia d'Oro out of the A.P. Indy mare Indian Vale. Pletcher envisions a campaign similar to that of horses like Florida Derby winners Always Dreaming (2017), Materiality (2015) and Constitution (2014).
“We'll have him down here. We plan to start him at Gulfstream, we just haven't firmed up a date yet. We certainly have high hopes for him and big expectations,” Pletcher said. “He's got an impressive debut win to go along with a stallion's pedigree and a pedigree that suggests he should handle the longer, Classic-type distances. He's an exciting prospect but he's not in serious training yet. We're kind of taking a patient approach but still keeping an eye on some big goals in the winter and spring.”
Pletcher said 2017 Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Always Dreaming and Tapwrit will also be working toward their comebacks here this winter. Neither horse has raced since the Travers (G1) Aug. 26 at Saratoga, where Tapwrit finished fourth and Always Dreaming ran ninth.
“They'll be training at Palm Beach this winter but neither one of them are back yet. I would say if they do make races at Gulfstream it would be toward the end of the Championship Meet,” Pletcher said. “Always Dreaming is definitely one that we would strongly consider for something at Gulfstream just based on the success of his two races there earlier this year. He had a big win in the Florida Derby so we know he likes the track. It'll be one of those things where we'll have to play it as it comes and see when they're ready. We're excited about having the Derby winner and the Belmont winner coming back into training next year.”
Last winter, Pletcher won 36 races with 3-year-olds and the remainder with older horses. He is pointing Neolithic, who turns 5 in 2018, to the $16 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational (G1) – the world's richest horse race – Jan. 27 at Gulfstream. He ran third behind Arrogate in this year's inaugural running.
“Right now we've got him slated as possible for the [$100,000] Harlan's Holiday [G3 Dec. 16]. We just felt like he likes Gulfstream and he's had more success going around two turns,” Pletcher said. “We felt like the Harlan's Holiday might be a potential stepping-stone to bring him in the Pegasus, so we decided to go that route.”
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