Trainer Todd Pletcher has taken plenty of ribbing about his 1 for 43 record in the Kentucky Derby, but it's only because he's been so successful everywhere else in the sport. The winner of a record seven Eclipse awards for Outstanding Trainer operates the all-time leading stable by money won. Saturday, he'll try to upset American Pharoah's bid for the first Triple Crown since 1978 and add a third Belmont Stakes victory to his resume. I recently spent a day with Pletcher in Florida, hoping for a small glimpse into the world of a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. Here is that story and video diary.
The darkness is still two and a half hours from giving way to dawn as Todd Pletcher arrives at the serene environs of Palm Beach Downs, an 85-acre private training facility at the end of a sandy road. Sleeping in means Pletcher awoke at 3:45 instead of 3:30 a.m. before making the 40-minute drive north from his place close to Gulfstream Park.
It's late March, and Daylight Saving Time has kicked in, which Pletcher describes as “no friend of horse trainers.” It means breezes can't start until 7:15, when there's enough light to monitor the workouts. But with nearly a hundred runners stabled here, the trainer can't wait for the sun. Horses just needing to stretch their legs or gallop will start going out to the training track before 6:00, seen only by their riders' headlamps bobbing up and down.
“We've got staff checking how the horses ate the night before, checking all the temperatures, going over some basic stuff like that,” Pletcher said. “We go over the day before what each horse is going to do the following day, whether it's walk, jog, gallop, breeze, how far they're breezing, who they're breezing with, so we try to have it all laid out on a set list, where it's gonna pretty much flow like clockwork hopefully.”
It does. On this morning, rotating carousels of nine circle the walking ring before heading out, exactly the way the color-coded set lists in Pletcher's office in Barn 3 say they should. The repetition is by design — for the benefit of both the horses and the trainer's employees.
“It's good for the staff to have a routine, and they become reliant on having a schedule laid out for them,” said Pletcher. “And as a rule, horses are creatures of habit, they enjoy a routine as well. It helps simplify things. I think sometimes people try to make things more complicated than they actually are.”
Pletcher's reputation for being “insanely organized,” as longtime assistant Tristan Barry puts it, is well-covered territory. It's hard to imagine running a stable of nearly 150 horses without a high level of organization, but to stop there might leave the misguided impression that Pletcher operates like a removed CEO who makes decisions from a top-floor corner office.
On this morning, he spends very little time in his office — steps away from the stables. He's at his computer a few minutes to check entries and overnights or to call in a new entry, but most of his time is spent with either hands or eyes on horses. Before a set heads to the track, he makes his rounds, checking each horse's legs to catch any potential problems before they might get exacerbated under stress.
“Todd's a very hard worker,” said Barry. “He wants to do the best he can with all the horses, and he knows every single one of them like the back of his hand.”
Dave Norton, a clocker who spends his mornings at Palm Beach Downs, has the same impression.
“I'd say he knows every one of them very, very well,” Norton said. “Very much involved in knowing exactly what's going on with every horse.”
While his runners on are the training track, Pletcher is almost always watching, either through binoculars or the naked eye. Gil Moutray, the co-owner of Pletcher-trained Materiality, is also on hand for today's session, and for us, it seems dizzying to try and keep track of each horse and what they're doing. We wonder aloud whether Todd might have a photographic memory.
“I think I used to have a better memory than I do now,” Pletcher laughs when I ask him about it later. “I don't know if I had a better memory then, or I just have more to remember now. I'm not good at trivia. I don't remember who won the 1958 Kentucky Derby (it was Tim Tam), but as far as recall with horses, hopefully it's pretty good.”
It must be. Pletcher is within striking distance of 600 graded stakes victories since he began training on his own two decades ago. But it's not like you can discern his accomplished record from spending time with him. Even though we are a day away from the Grade 1 Florida Derby, where Materiality will produce an impressive victory, and the Dubai World Cup, where Mshawish will finish third in the Group 1 Dubai Turf, it feels like this is any other day in the Pletcher barn. The trainer emotes a calm, workman-like demeanor, which the staff seems to appreciate. A pleasant, cordial attitude pervades the setting.
That goes for me, too. Pletcher never seems perturbed when I stop him to ask questions, some of which he's undoubtedly heard, I don't know, a million times. He acknowledges his fortune to have “those kinds of issues,” such as reporters wanting to follow him around for a day. As most racing journalists know, Pletcher is rarely a fountain of juicy quotes like some trainers, but he comes across as patient and gracious, with a sense of humor to boot.
In between our interactions, he multi-tasks the cell phone while attending to other duties.
“A lot of it's communicating with the barns and assistants and making entries, things like that,” Pletcher said. “I'm not a huge talker, so unless it's (owner) Mike Repole asking me a thousand questions, generally most of my conversations we can wrap up fairly quickly.”
Owners like Moutray don't need soliloquies from their trainer. Just the facts will do.
“He tends to business, there's no monkey business,” said Moutray. “When you're investing the kind of money that (partner) Eddie Harrell and I have invested — I live in New Mexico, a thousand miles away, Eddie lives in Houston, over a thousand miles away, it's comforting to know and we sleep well knowing that Todd Pletcher's watching after our horses.”
There's a rhythm to Pletcher's daily activities. It continues when he hustles back down south to oversee 3-year-old Competitive Edge's return to the races. The unbeaten son of Super Saver is in the Tamarac Stakes early on the card today, his first start since winning the G1 Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga last September. Pletcher spends several minutes adjusting the colt's tack, making sure it's perfect for jockey John Velazquez. Once he's satisfied, Pletcher resumes his routine, striding into the walking ring for a handshake with the ownership group's lone representative, granting an interview with TVG, and giving instructions to Velazquez.
“I mean, I don't want you to send him, but help him out of there, he hasn't broken in a while, make sure he gets a good position,” Pletcher advises.
When Competitive Edge edges away to win by 8 1/4 lengths over a short field, Pletcher's binoculars are still trained on the colt's gallop-out even as his wife, Tracy, and other box companions get up to head down to the winner's circle. It's not as if Pletcher's immune to displays of emotion — he once famously slammed his binoculars onto a table after Quality Road was beaten a head in the 2010 Whitney Handicap — but after 3,765 victories as well as the tough beats along the way, he's learned to keep an even keel whenever possible. After this win, there are more interviews and hand shakes, but then it's time to start thinking about tomorrow.
“I still get the butterflies in my stomach before big races, but it's not a business where you can sit back and say, 'the season's over, we won the championship,” he said. “For us, it's literally thinking about the next day. We have a big day on Saturday, but then Sunday morning, we'll have some important breezes and stuff getting ready for the next weekend. It doesn't allow you a lot of time to reflect.”
“He's got winning on the mind, and that's his goal,” said Barry. “He puts the effort in, and working with him, he inspires you to do the same. The harder you work, the more you win. That's it in a nutshell.”
But while Pletcher has established a structured routine, one that includes time for his wife and three children (their schedules are busier than mine, a lot of times, Pletcher says), his philosophy about what he does is more fluid.
“If we're training horses, preparing them for races, and they're running well, we're doing our job. If they're not, we've got to figure out something else to do with them and how to improve on that,” he said. “I like the fact that you get to see the results of your work. While a lot of days are similar, every day is different, every day brings new challenges.”
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