GUEST COMMENTARY: PLETCHER’S TRIPLE CROWN TROUBLES

by | 11.17.2010 | 12:47am

Todd Pletcher is almost a cinch to be elected into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame as soon as he becomes eligible for nomination on the ballot. The one-time D. Wayne Lukas assistant has won four Eclipse Awards as outstanding trainer in North America (2003-2007), set records for earnings by a North American trainer and won meeting titles at more than a half dozen tracks in Florida, Kentucky and New York. He once trained 100 stakes winners in a single season.


Yet Pletcher, as he hates to be reminded, has the worst record for futility in Kentucky Derby history, and his results in the other Triple Crown races and Breeders' Cup do not yet measure up to his overall career accomplishments.


To that end, turf writer Nick Kling of the Troy Record, wrote about Pletcher's recent Triple Crown tailspin in a piece that appeared only in the upstate New  York's May 19 print edition. With the paper's permission, we are republishing Kling's commentary online. – Ray Paulick


 
By Nick Kling


When Take The Points finished last in Saturday's Preakness Stakes, his performance was the latest page in an incredible story being written by Todd Pletcher.


Pletcher is considered to be one of the most accomplished Thoroughbred trainers in the nation.  He is held in such high esteem that he was voted Eclipse Awards as America's outstanding trainer four years in succession (2004-2007).


Todd has been at his best at Saratoga Race Course, winning six training titles at the prestigious meet.  In 2007 Pletcher trained three Eclipse-winning horses: Rags to Riches (3-year-old filly), Lawyer Ron (older male), and English Channel (turf male).


However, there is one area where Pletcher has not been so successful.  His horses have been awful in Triple Crown races: the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes.  The record of futility from Pletcher-trained starters in these classic events may be unparalleled.


Over the eleven most recent Triple Crown races, beginning with the 2006 Kentucky Derby, Pletcher-trained horses have finished last four times.  That is a negative batting average of 36 percent. 


In reality, it is worse than that.  He had starters in only nine of those races.  That raises Pletcher's absolutely last quotient to 44 percent.


Harness announcer Jack E. Lee used to say the trailing horse in a race could, “see them all.”  The Pletcher Triple Crown starters since 2006 who could see them all at the finish line were Keyed Entry (2006 Derby), Cowtown Cat (2007 Derby), Monba (2008) Derby, and Take The Points (2009 Preakness).


In addition, Pletcher's 2005 Kentucky Derby starter Bandini finished 19th of 20 in that field.  2004 Belmont Stakes starter Purge finished dead last of nine starters.  2001 Belmont entrant Balto Star finished eighth of nine.


According to KentuckyDerby.com, Pletcher has started 24 horses in America's greatest race.  21 have finished out of the money.  Todd's best Derby results have been a pair of seconds and one third.


Only D. Wayne Lukas has had more Derby starters (43) than Pletcher.  Lukas, one of Pletcher's mentors, has won the race four times.  Trainer H.J. Thompson had 24 Derby entrants and four winners.  Trainers Sylvester Veitch and Ron McAnally, who had 10 Derby starters, are the only other horsemen with double-digit entrants without a Kentucky Derby victory.


Using Daily Racing Form's Formulator past performance program, I was able to find two Preakness entrants from the Pletcher barn.  One was Take The Points.  The other was Circular Quay, who finished fifth in 2007.


Pletcher's only victory in a Triple Crown race came when Rags to Riches won the 2007 Belmont Stakes, beating subsequent Horse of the Year Curlin.  Preparing a filly to accomplish that task was an outstanding feat of training, making Pletcher's overall lack of success more incomprehensible.


Overall, he has had eight Belmont Stakes starters, four unplaced finishers, and three besides Rags to Riches in the money.


The Breeders' Cup is the only other event which compares to Triple Crown races in stature.  Pletcher's relative accomplishments in Cup races is better, although not great.


According to the Breeders' Cup website, Todd has had 55 Cup starters.  They have produced three wins, six seconds, and seven thirds.  Pletcher Cup starters have earned approximately $8 million in purse money, placing him in the top six among all trainers.


Horsemen such as Bobby Frankel and Bill Mott, Hall of Famers both, have Breeders' Cup records in line with Pletcher's Cup performance.


Trying to deduce what causes Todd's Triple Crown flame-out is an exercise in speculation.  My best guess would point to two causes.


Many of the colts in the Pletcher barn are horses bred for speed.  Speed wins a lot of races, but not necessarily those at classic distances.  Several have sires cut in the mold of Distorted Humor and Elusive Quality, middle distances types who have produced Derby winners nevertheless. 


However, Pletcher's high profile owners generally spend a lot of money on their stock and expect a return.  Pletcher is among the top trainers in the country in terms of number of juvenile starters.  Horses which break their maiden sprinting at five or six furlongs and win two-year-old stakes races at the Churchill Downs and Saratoga summer meets are unlikely to be the same animals winning Triple Crown events.


In addition, some horses from the Pletcher stable appear to have been ambitiously-spotted in Triple Crown races.  A review of their past performances reveals some horses which have done most of their racing on synthetic surfaces.  Others have mediocre dirt form, or have not done particularly well at longer route distances.


Make no mistake.  Derby fever is an affliction which strikes many owners and trainers in spring.  If that plays any part in the decisions made about Pletcher-trained horses, they are in good company.


There are some signs horsemen are beginning to rethink the idea of shoving any remotely talented three-year-old into Triple Crown races.  Take The Points, for example, had earnings which qualified him for the Derby.  His connections chose to wait for the Preakness.


Horsemen used to say Thoroughbreds were like strawberries — they could spoil overnight.  It's only gotten worse.  Many young horses in the 21st Century have the shelf life of raw oysters.  If they are put where they don't belong, someone might get sick.

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