Horse Racing: CALM COLOSSUS; David Ashforth meets Todd Pletcher, the US training phenomenon poised to field the biggest-ever Cup team.
WHAT Todd Pletcher does is break records. No-one breaks records like Pletcher does. Well, Tiger Woods, maybe. Tomorrow, Pletcher, aged 39, will break another - the one for the most starters at a Breeders' Cup. The mighty D Wayne Lukas - who else? - holds the record' 14 in 1987. Pletcher expects to run 17.
Lucky that D Wayne wears a big hat, because Pletcher is knocking over his records like a row of tin cans on a fairground stall. Last year, he became the first trainer to break the $20 million earnings barrier. Last month, he equalled Lukas's record of 53 Graded stakes wins in a year, including 17 Grade 1s. The list of meetings at which Pletcher has been leading trainer is too long to list. Let's just say that, so far this year, his 264 wins, and countless placings, have brought in more than $24 million. Second in the table is Doug O'Neill. The trainer of Lava Man has had a great season, with earnings of just over $9 million. You get the picture.
It's happened quickly, yet surely, as if it was always planned, always going to be and, in a way, it was. "Before I was a teenager, I decided that I wanted to train horses," says Pletcher, a steady speaker, measured, in control, no histrionics, getting the job done. "My parents were both very supportive - they just insisted that I got a college education." Pletcher's father, Jake, was a trainer - "I spent most of my childhood working at the barns with my dad. He was smart enough to know that it was smart to see how other trainers did things. Everyone has their own style, and it is the fine details that separate each trainer."
So Pletcher did his degree, in animal science, and spent his college holidays with men who knew how to do things - Charlie Whittingham and D Wayne Lukas. After leaving the University of Arizona, in 1989, Pletcher became Lukas's assistant. "I watched, and observed, and learnt," he says. "I learnt how to run a stable." Towards the end of 1995, Pletcher opened his own stable, with just seven horses. It seems a long time ago. Now, he has 196, and five assistant trainers of his own.
"My philosophy on training," he says, "is to keep it as basic and simple as possible. It's a very common sense approach. The most important thing is to identify a horse's ability level and find out what the horse is best at doing. Pedigree has a big part to play in that, but you also need to watch how a horse works. I believe in focusing on each horse's strengths - I don't try to turn turf horses into dirt horses. I try to find out what a horse wants to do, what its speciality is."
A simple philosophy, but a mighty successful one, and not the sole explanation for Pletcher's success. He had his first winner in 1996, his first stakes winner in 1997, his first national champion in 2002 - Left Bank - his first Breeders' Cup winners in 2004. And all the time, Pletcher's barns got bigger, and fuller, and more records were broken, and he reached the top of the tree, and sits there, a calm colossus. We are talking about a very focused, purposeful, organised man.
"I have been blessed with good horses and good clients, and I surround myself with good people," he says, then adds, "as a stable grows, you have got to maintain a good relationship with your clients - the clients who were with you when you had only 20 horses. That is easier said than done. They still need the same attention and you still want to give them the same service.
"I have been able to grow the stable and still satisfy my owners. They want information' they want to know now. Nowadays, communication is a big part of training, and email and internet are important to us. I supervise my team, but I focus on the horses."
Pletcher, with two wins from 24 attempts, has not yet dominated the Breeders' Cup as he has dominated many meetings. "No-one's win percentage is going to be as high in the Breeders' Cup as elsewhere," he says, "and in the past we have taken a swing at races in which we didn't have the best horses. Two years ago, for the first time, we ran horses with legitimate chances of winning, and Ashado and Speightstown won. I was pleased with that."
Pletcher's big five: how the trainer rates his Breeders' Cup ace cards
Fleet Indian Distaff
"Fleet Indian has improved for being raced consistently over longer trips - we have never run her at less than one mile and an eighth. Before she joined us, she didn't always race on the lead but she did with us, until the Beldame. There was a lot of early speed in that race, so we needed to sit back, and it worked well. It gives us more tactical possibilities and she will probably be in the second tier, with Pool Land showing more early pace. She has never run at Churchill Downs, but I am very confident coming up to the race. She is very well."
Wait A While Filly & Mare Turf
"Wait A While is a superstar on turf. She has been dominant, putting away quality fields. I wouldn't trade her for any other filly in the race, including Ouija Board, although I am not saying she will definitely win. She is taking on a seasoned, accomplished mare over a longer trip than she has raced over before, but she is top quality."
English Channel Turf
"He is remarkably consistent and likes Churchill Downs. If Hurricane Run brings his form, he will be difficult to beat, but I love our horse because he comes to fight every time. He can pull, so we are running a pacemaker, Icy Atlantic. I don't want English Channel to be on the lead."
Circular Quay/Scat Daddy Juvenile
"Michael Tabor part-owns both these colts. I told Michael three months ago that he had two outstanding quality colts, and I wouldn't be able to separate them, although they are very different. Scat Daddy is big and scopy and aggressive in the morning, while Circular Quay is smaller and wouldn't blow you away in the morning but does in the afternoon. He didn't cope with the Polytrack at Keeneland."
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|Publication:||The Racing Post (London, England)|
|Date:||Nov 3, 2006|
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