The nation’s top trainer has plenty of horses, but seems to have disdain for the second jewel.
by John Furgele
Today is the second jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown when the Preakness Stakes is contested at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. A solid field of eight will enter the gate and run for the Black Eyed Susans. The usual cast of characters will be there; the big name jockeys, the trainers and the owners. All except one. Todd Pletcher.
Pletcher, for many reasons, doesn’t like the Preakness. And, that’s bad for the sport of horse racing. As a trainer, Pletcher has sent 43 horses into the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby but only seven at the Preakness. He has never embraced the 1 3/16 mile race, even when he won his only Derby. After Super Saver won in Louisville, Pletcher’s less than enthusiastic response about heading to Baltimore was telling.
Pletcher is not ludicrous for not being overjoyed about running horses at Old Hilltop. He is a new school trainer, one who believes that six to eight weeks between races is suffice. To run a horse twice in two weeks doesn’t sit well with him. He is certainly not alone in his thinking. There are no more Woody Stephens in the world, guys that would run their horse once a week if they thought it was worthwhile. Pletcher’s mentor, D. Wayne Lukas is the last of the old guard, a guy who would do anything to get a horse ready for an American classic race.
Pletcher was thrilled to win the Derby in 2010, but only took Super Saver to Baltimore because, as Derby winner, Super Saver was the only horse that could win the Triple Crown. In that way, he was obligated to run the colt back in 14 days to see if history could be made. After the colt finished eighth, Pletcher’s convictions were cemented even more.
In contrast to Pletcher, is the above mentioned Lukas. Lukas is more likely to run a horse that might not be ready for the big stage because at 79 he, enjoys being on the big stage. For Lukas, it’s all about trying to win the big race, and in this land, there are four of them: The Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont and the Breeder’s Cup Classic. Sure, there are other fine races, with million dollar purses and tons of prestige, but to the American sports fan, those four are what matter. Lukas wants his horses to be ready for them. In fact, Lukas wanted Mr. Z to enter the Preakness so badly, he orchestrated a sale from Ahmed Zayet, who didn’t want to run him, to Calumet Farm, who will.
What is even more puzzling is that nobody has more horses in training than Pletcher. He has won numerous Eclipse awards as the nation’s top trainer and when newbie owners want to join the game, they turn to Pletcher. Mike Repole, Don Lucciarelli and Ed Stanco are just three examples. What I don’t fully understand is how Pletcher can send anywhere from four to six horses to the Derby, but zero to the Preakness? Once again, it is easy to explain away why his four Derby horses aren’t in Baltimore, but what about the rest of his stable? Isn’t there one worthy of an attempt?
One would think that Pletcher could go to his owners and tell them simply that it is his recommendation to save their horse for the second jewel rather than the first one. Yes, it is tough to tell an owner that the Derby isn’t in the cards because for most trainers, it is their dream to be one of the 20 to qualify for the Run for the Roses. To win it is almost unfathomable, but getting there can be a realistic goal. And, trainers want to be a Kentucky Derby winner. A win or two there usually is good enough for the Hall of Fame.
Bob Baffert, like Lukas, is the anti-Pletcher. He wants to be there, and has had great success with five Preakness victories. If one of his horses runs well in the Derby, there is a little doubt that he’ll bring him back in the Preakness. When Bodemeister lost in the stretch to I’ll Have Another in 2012, Baffert sent him to the Preakness, where he finished a heartbreaking second. When Lookin at Lucky struggled in the 2010 Derby, Baffert sent him to the Preakness, where he won convincingly. When Dortmund tired in deep stretch to finish third two weeks ago, Baffert had no reservations about bringing him to the Preakness where he will square off against his stablemate, the Kentucky Derby winner, American Pharoah. The trainers work for the owners, but something tells me if Baffert approached Kaleem Shah, the owner of Dortmund and asked him to not run in the Preakness, Shah likely would have respected the sentiment. But, to his credit, Baffert didn’t do that.
Pletcher is hurting the Triple Crown. Before the last hour sale of Mr. Z, there were only seven horses readying for the Preakness. That’s not enough. Eight horses is a nice number, but with Pletcher’s barn, there should be more. Why not run at least two? If you can run four at the Derby, why not one or two for the Preakness? A full field for the Preakness is 14 and while that is not necessary, it would be nice to have at least 10 each year.
Pletcher’s disdain for the Preakness has rubbed those at the Maryland Jockey Club the wrong way. They have mildly threatened to move the Preakness to July, well after the Belmont Stakes in an attempt to get more runners in the race. While this is not likely to happen, the message is clear: run the Derby, run the Preakness because it’s good for the sport. Some say that the mild threat is aimed at Pletcher and truth be told, because the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes are three separate entities, the Preakness could move and not face any sanctions, because there is no national governing body like an NHL, MLB, NFL or NBA. In fact, some owners—Pletcher for sure—would embrace the move because it would allow sufficient rest between races.
The Triple Crown is the magical time of the year for a sport that sits on the fringe. The big players need to do what’s best for the sport and that is to showcase themselves and their horses in the three signature events. There are only three of these races and to see perhaps the most talented trainer skip the race at will each year is disturbing. He can’t be forced to run horses in the Preakness, but he could and should be encouraged to do so because the sport needs him and his horses.
I’m sure the Maryland Jockey Club has spoken, encouraged and even begged Pletcher to bring a few horses to Pimlico, but he continually balks at the notion. Maybe somebody else can get to him, to convince him that the sport will benefit greatly with his presence at all three races, not just the Derby and the Belmont.