Saratoga Springs

Saratoga a big part of Pletcher’s National Racing Hall of Fame resume

Trainer Todd Pletcher, right, will be inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame on Friday.
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Trainer Todd Pletcher, right, will be inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame on Friday.

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Mike Repole has been told to keep it tight.

He gets a minute, and if you’ve heard him in conversation, one minute just isn’t going to happen.

The thoroughbred owner from Queens will be introducing trainer Todd Pletcher during Friday’s induction ceremony for the National Racing Hall of Fame at the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion, and one of the jokes that have come up at this event is that the speeches need to be short so that patrons will have time to get across the street and bet the early double at Saratoga Race Course.

The ceremony, which is free and open to the public, begins at 10:30 a.m.; first post at the track is 1:05 p.m. … Mike Repole, you’re on the clock.

But anyone tasked with introducing Pletcher would face a stiff challenge to bring any degree of brevity to the proceeding. His list of accomplishments as a head trainer is just too long, and a subset of that, what he’s done at Saratoga alone, could fill a book.

So it’ll be interesting to see and hear what gets packed into the Pletcher tribute on Friday, but much of it should be well familiar to fans who have been watching Pletcher’s horses at Saratoga for the last 25 years.

“That’s why I told him, it’s not like the Eclipse Awards, where you can start playing the music [to cut off speeches],” Pletcher said with a laugh two days before the start of the 2021 Saratoga meet. “I’m pretty sure my speech will be shorter than his introduction.

“Yeah, it’s exciting, and I feel especially grateful that my parents are going to be here to see it. So I’m looking forward to it.”

Besides Pletcher, this year’s induction class will include 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and the steeplechase trainer Jack Fisher, and there will also be seven inductees from the class of 2020, who were deprived of a ceremony last year because of the pandemic.

The Dallas native Pletcher made New York his home decades ago, not by choice, but by a directive from his new boss, D. Wayne Lukas, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999 and took on Pletcher as a barn foreman for his New York operation in 1989.

Lukas established a template for the so-called super trainer, with an all-star roster of horses stabled at a variety of tracks around the country, ready to step into graded stakes races.

Pletcher, who took out his training license in 1995, eventually used aspects of that model as his stable grew.

By the 2000s, he was putting together impressive streaks — four straight Eclipse Awards as outstanding trainer in North America from 2004 to 2007, leading trainer in purse earnings each year over that same span, and five straight Saratoga training titles for most wins, from 2002 to2006. He improved on that by winning six straight Spa titles from 2010 to 2015, and has won 14 overall, including last year.

“I think in order to be successful, you’ve got to get a series of breaks that you maybe don’t know are breaks at the time,” Pletcher said. “When I went to meet him [Lukas] in December of my senior year of college, he told me that I would have a job when I graduated in May, but to call him when I graduated, and he would tell me what to do.

“So when I called him, he said, ‘Go to New York, go to Belmont and work for Jeff [Lukas’ son and lead assistant] there.’ Jeff was one of the sharpest guys I’ve been around, and he was a tremendous coach. I think he was one of those guys who makes people around him better. From a learning perspective, I don’t think I could’ve fallen into a better position.

“So I spent half the year working for him, half the year working for Kiaran McLaughlin, two very different styles of management, but two great horsemen. That was just a lucky break. Not only that, but getting to come to New York and racing at Belmont and Saratoga. Of course, I spent four winters there at Aqueduct, too.”

Before Pletcher began dominating the Saratoga meet, Wayne Lukas enjoyed his own burst of success at the Spa, winning six titles total and five straight from 1988 to 1992, and Pletcher’s handiwork as Lukas’ assistant showed on many of their top horses, like Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Thunder Gulch and Hall of Famer Serena’s Song.

When he finally went out on his own, Pletcher, who currently has 190 horses in training at Saratoga, Belmont and Monmouth Park, was in charge of just seven horses, “and four of them were owned by my father and a lady named Betty Massey,” he said.

Pletcher went on to win a total of seven Eclipse Awards as top trainer. On the Triple Crown trail, he has won the Kentucky Derby twice (Super Saver, 2010; Always Dreaming, 2017) and the Belmont three times (Rags to Riches, 2007; Palace Malice, 2013; Tapwrit, 2017). He has won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, with Vino Rosso in 2019 and Breeders’ Cup Distaff twice, with Ashado in 2004 and Stopchargingmaria, owned by Repole, in 2015.

His horses have won a total of 169 Grade I stakes, and Pletcher leads all trainers on the all-time career earnings list, at $409,890,881 heading into Wednesday’s card at Saratoga.

“I’ve always said that there’s two horses that helped my career early on, and they were More Than Ready and Jersey Girl,” Pletcher said. “More Than Ready was sort of the first headliner, and Jersey Girl was our first Grade I winner.

“Mr. [Michael] Tabor gave me some horses early on. I remember when [bloodstock agent] Demi O’Byrne purchased a couple of 2-year-olds at Fasig-Tipton Calder, and he handed me the slip and said, ‘I expect you to win Grade I’s with these two,’ and it turned out one was Circle of Life and one was Left Bank. Took me a little while, but we accomplished it.”

In 1999, More Than Ready won the first five races of his career, a streak whose fifth leg was the Grade II Sanford at Saratoga. He would go on to win the Grade I King’s Bishop, since renamed in honor of Allen Jerkens and a staple of the blockbuster Travers card at Saratoga every year. Also in 1999, Circle of Life won the Grade I Spinaway at Saratoga.

Left Bank finished fourth to More Than Ready in the 2000 King’s Bishop, but came back to Saratoga two years later and closed out his career by breaking a track record while winning the Whitney, the first of three victories for Pletcher in one of Saratoga’s most important and prestigious races.

Lawyer Ron won it in 2007, and Cross Traffic won the 2013 Whitney.

Also at Saratoga, Pletcher has won the Travers twice (Flower Alley, 2005; Stay Thirsty, 2011) and the Alabama twice (Princess of Sylmar, 2013; Stopchargingmaria, 2014).

Pletcher-trained horses have won 12 Eclipse Awards, and they include Ashado (twice), English Channel, Fleet Indian, Lawyer Ron, Left Bank, Rags to Riches, Shanghai Bobby, Speightstown, Wait a While, Uncle Mo and Vino Rosso.

One of the greatest achievements on his resume is training Rags to Riches to victory in 2007, when she became the first filly to win that race in over a century, after a spellbinding stretch duel with Curlin that brought a powerful roar from the crowd at Belmont Park.

“That year, there were three very good colts, and when Street Sense decided after the Preakness not to go, we felt like that was, OK, we weren’t sure we wanted to take on all three of them, Hard Spun, Street Sense and Curlin, but when Street Sense came out, that was sort of the tiebreaker,” Pletcher said.

“We spent so much time agonizing over the decision itself to run, and then when she went to her nose at the start, my immediate thought was, ‘We screwed up, we made the wrong choice.’ And the rest of it was probably the most exciting two and half minutes in sports.

“At least for me it was,” he said with a laugh. “Especially the drama of the entire thing.”

Besides his parents, Pletcher’s family includes his wife Tracy, whom he is quick to praise for her support over the years, and their three children, sons Payton and Kyle and daughter Hannah.

Thoroughbred racing in North America is unusual among pro sports in that Hall of Fame induction among human honorees frequently comes well before the person has officially retired from the sport.

For example, 49-year-old John Velazquez, who rode Rags to Riches in the 2007 Belmont, is still quite active as a jockey — he won the Kentucky Derby in May on Medina Spirit — nine years after he was inducted. He was Pletcher’s first-call rider for years.

Trainers aren’t eligible until 25 years after they’ve taken out their license, which for Pletcher was this year, a slam dunk for the voters if ever there was one.

Mike Repole will have to somehow cram his Pletcher tribute into his allotted time, and Pletcher’s job won’t be much easier.

“I’ve tried to think about the speech itself, which I’m nervous about,” he said. “It’s impossible to thank everyone who’s contributed to this, so I kind of came to the conclusion that the easiest thing is to not name too many individuals, in fear of leaving someone important out.

“The one thing that was obvious to me right away when I started working for Wayne was how important Saratoga is.”

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