SARATOGA SPRINGS — Todd Pletcher wasted no time acknowledging those who had been inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame before him.
“So many of these guys were my childhood heroes, role models, mentors, competitors . . .
“Guys like [jockey] Jerry Bailey, who won my first race; guys like Jose Santos, who lost my first race.”
Pletcher went on to credit Santos for having ridden the first of 17,458 races Pletcher-trained horses lost over the next 25 years, to a burst of laughter from the near-capacity crowd at the Fasig-Tipton Sales Pavilion on Friday.
They weren’t there to hear about the races he’d lost, but the ones he’d won, which have been sufficiently high in number alone to place Pletcher among the all-time greats.
More significantly, his long list of victories in the most important races in the U.S. made him an easy choice on the part of voters to be a part of the class of 2021 inductees in his first year of eligibility as a head trainer.
“When you talk about Todd, you’re talking about consistency,” said owner Mike Repole, who delivered the introduction when it was Pletcher’s turn to take the stage. “It’s 365 days a year. It’s 4 in the morning. It’s ’til 8 at night. Horses don’t celebrate Christmas, they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving.
“Eleven Breeders’ Cup winners in eight different divisions. From Ashado to English Channel to Vino Rosso to Uncle Mo, dirt or turf . . . what has this guy mastered? He’s mastered winning.”
Pletcher was joined by 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and steeplechase trainer Jack Fisher in the class of 2021.
The Racing Hall of Fame also acknowledged the 2020 class, whose ceremony was postponed by the pandemic. They included trainer Mark Casse, jockey Darrel McHargue and racehorses Wise Dan and Tom Bowling, along with Pillars of the Turf honorees Alice Headley Chandler, J. Keene Daingerfield and George Widener Jr.
The voluble Repole topped out at over 18 minutes for his intro speech, while Pletcher spoke for 5 1/2 minutes, admitting that he learned his lesson when he won the first of his seven Eclipse Awards, in 2004.
“I made the mistake in 2004 at my first Eclipse Award acceptance speech of trying to name people and thank people, and I forgot one and spent the next 17 years regretting it,” he said. “So I’m not going to mention everyone who’s contributed to this.
“It’s been an army.”
The territory Pletcher and his crew have conquered includes the Kentucky Derby twice (Super Saver, Always Dreaming), three Belmont Stakes (Rags to Riches, Palace Malice, Tapwrit) and 11 Breeders’ Cup races. He has won 60 individual meet training titles, including a whopping 14 at Saratoga, where some of his top moments include two victories in the Travers (Flower Alley, Stay Thirsty), three in the Whitney (Cross Traffic, Lawyer Ron, Left Bank) and two in the Alabama (Princess of Sylmar, Stopchargingmaria).
His primary mentor, the 85-year-old Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, was not in attendance, but no matter how short Pletcher’s list of people to thank would be, Lukas would be on it.
“After I went out on my own, the most common question I’d get is what is the one thing you learned working for Wayne Lukas,” Pletcher said. “And the answer is there’s not one thing, it’s everything. Everything matters, everyone matters, every horse matters, every owner matters.”
“Everyone” includes his family.
Besides wife Tracy and children Payton, Kyle and Hannah, Pletcher’s parents, Jake and Jerrie, were in attendance.
“Of course, training is tough on family life,” Todd Pletcher said. “My wife Tracy, Payton, Kyle and Hannah, I missed a lot of soccer games and school nights, but one of the cool things about being a horse trainer is pretty much every day you bring them to the workday. And we shared a lot of great moments, too.”
One of the great moments displayed on the video screens around the Fasig-Tipton pavilion was American Pharoah’s 2015 Belmont Stakes victory, which clinch the first Triple Crown since Affirmed did it in 1978.
Master of ceremonies Tom Durkin, the long-time track announcer on the NYRA circuit, took the opportunity to remind everyone that he was 0-for-9 in his career in New York calling potential Triple Crowns, with nine horses who came into the Belmont having won the first two legs in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
“My contract was up in 2015, and in 2014 I said, ‘You know, this is enough,’ and they were able to let me out of my contract,” Durkin told the audience. “I was supposed to call the 2015 Belmont Stakes.
“And as soon as the new guy walked in . . .”
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert was not in attendance, but American Pharoah’s owner Ahmed Zayat thanked Baffert “for not just a brilliant training job, but for opening the barn for every single person to come and visit American Pharoah.”
That included the day after American Pharoah was upset by Keen Ice in the Travers at Saratoga, where 15,000 fans showed up to watch the colt in a routine maintenance gallop the morning before the race.
After American Pharoah lost the Travers, a few hundred fans showed up at the barn the next day and got to feed American Pharoah treats while Baffert held the lead shank.
“I want to talk about American Pharoah as the people’s horse,” Zayat said. “Looking at the crowd and what had happened [in the Belmont], for minutes and minutes and minutes of pure elation, that sight will always be in my heart. When I was accepting the award, I couldn’t think of what to say, so I said, ‘This is everyone’s horse.'”
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