Trainer Todd Pletcher said he has scrutinized every facet of an operation that produced a record seven Eclipse Awards in a remarkable stretch from 2004-'14 but recently showed evidence of decline.
A dazzling spring last year in which Noble Indy won the Louisiana Derby, Audible the Florida Derby, Vino Rosso the Wood Memorial and Magnum Moon the Arkansas Derby gave way to a chilly summer in which he failed to be competitive with Chad Brown for the Saratoga training title.
Brown, in a steppingstone to his third successive Eclipse, sent out an unprecedented 46 winners at Saratoga to 19 for Pletcher, the runner-up. Pletcher's string of 15 consecutive Gulfstream Park championship meet crowns abruptly ended last weekend, when Florida-based Jorge Navarro sent out significantly more starters and prevailed.
In statistics provided by Equibase, Pletcher's horses took 215 of 975 starts last year, allowing him to win at a 22 percent clip that would make most trainers proud. For Pletcher, who suffers largely in comparison to the incredibly high bar he set for himself, it was his lowest strike rate since his horses took 21 percent of their starts in 2009. His earnings of $18,373,767 were his lowest since he totaled $17,186,956 in 2011.
Beyond that, Pletcher has been conspicuous in his relative absence from some Kentucky Derby prep races this year before an uptick of late. Although he owns a record five Florida Derby victories, he came close to not having a starter last Saturday before he entered longshot Current in the race. Current, who has done his best work on grass, never threatened in fifth.
The uncharacteristic dips have gotten the attention of the meticulous trainer in a big way.
“Whether you are doing well or not doing as well as you would like to be doing, you always have to be looking for areas to improve,” Pletcher said. “When things are not going well, you look even harder.”
The trainer said he made a change to his feeding program not long ago. He also is emphasizing the need to do better at procuring talent on behalf of a clientele that remains fiercely loyal in a game in which ties may be quickly severed during a downturn.
“Part of the reason we didn't do as well in the summer months of 2018 was we didn't do as good a job in the recruiting process, yearling sales and 2-year-old market,” Pletcher said. “So those are areas we are looking to improve.”
Pletcher added, “Like any trainer, any coach, you are a lot of times as good as your athlete.”
He estimated that 60 juveniles came through his program last year. Of late, a few of those have shown signs of emerging. Spinoff positioned himself for the Kentucky Derby when he earned 40 points in placing second in the March 23 Louisiana Derby. The next day, Cutting Humor secured his spot by racking up 50 points awarded to the winner of the Sunland Derby in New Mexico.
Pletcher expects to be well represented in three of the remaining major Derby preps, the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland this Saturday and the April 13 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. Outshine, set to join stablemate Overdeliver in the Wood, looks to be the best of his remaining prospects. Owned by Let's Go Stable and Richard Schibell, Outshine already has 20 qualifying points after running second to Tacitus in the March 9 Tampa Bay Derby.
Pletcher needed to back off Spinoff and Outshine as 2-year-olds. Spinoff was sidelined after he ran third in the Aug. 12 Saratoga Special. Outshine finished fifth in the June 8 Tremont Stakes before his juvenile campaign ended.
“We knew that if we could put them away at the right time and bring them back at the right time that they could hopefully have good springs,” Pletcher said. “And that's sort of jelled together.”
Owner Mike Repole believes he has a solid shot with Overdeliver in the Wood even though his colt has not run since Jan. 19, when he placed second to Win Win Win in the seven-furlong Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. He fully expects Pletcher to regain his lost luster, perhaps even in the space of the next two weekends.
“My level of confidence in Todd has been the same since I first had horses with him 10 years ago,” Repole said.
Pletcher has saddled more Kentucky Derby starters than any other trainer in history, with 52. He owns two victories, with Super Saver in 2010 and Always Dreaming in 2017. Repole noted how difficult it is to merely to get a horse to the Derby in saying, “I think Chad Brown is an amazing trainer, an Eclipse Award-winning trainer. I'm not even sure Chad has a horse on the Derby trail or will have a Derby entry. It's just tough to do.”
Barring an unforeseen development, Brown's high-powered operation will indeed be without a starter at this year's Derby.
Jack Wolf, whose Starlight Racing owns Cutting Humor, could not be more satisfied after his colt's track-record performance at Sunland Park.
“I know where you are coming from with your questions,” Wolf said when asked about Pletcher's operation. “But to me, he's the same trainer he was 15 years ago. I love the way he deals with my horses. He gets them ready and puts them in the right places. He's as honest a person as you can possibly deal with.”
Pletcher said he no longer wishes to maintain four or five divisions as he did more than a decade ago. He said he found his “comfort zone” with his current numbers, which he estimated range from 150 horses to a high of 200.
He is being careful not to overreact to disappointments that date to last summer.
“It's a difficult business to maintain constant momentum,” he said. “There are going to be ebbs and flows like there are with anything you do.”
Pletcher is convinced some sub-par results suggest nothing more than a slump. His stable recorded a major victory last Saturday when Coal Front staged a dramatic rally to win the $1.5 million Godolphin Mile at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai.
“I think sometimes when you go through a bit of a slow period,” Pletcher said, “it actually makes you better.”
Tom Pedulla wrote for USA Today from 1995-2012 and has been a contributor to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Blood-Horse, America's Best Racing and other publications.
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