Todd Pletcher won more 2-year-old races at Saratoga Race Course last year than Michael Dilger has started.
Of any age.
In his lifetime.
The former Pletcher assistant from Mullingar, Ireland, took down a big one on Sunday, though, winning the Grade II Sanford at Saratoga with the New York-bred Wired Bryan by 5 1⁄4 lengths.
It was just the second win of his career as a head trainer, which began in January and amounts to starts in 15 races.
Among those Wired Bryan beat in the Sanford was the Pletcher-trained All in Blue, owned by Starlight Racing, and Debt Ceiling, who came in undefeated from three starts at three different tracks, including the Grade III Bashford Manor.
During the post-race interview, Dilger interrupted himself to bend over and clear his throat, saying, “Sorry, I’m hoarse . . . I was cheering a little bit . . .”
Otherwise, he betrayed no evidence that the victory was any extra special, coming as it did at the track where his former mentor dominates.
“It’s my first winner, and my first stakes winner . . . first stakes runner,” he said with a grin.
With the Sanford win, Wired Bryan earned an extra $100,000 through a bonus program established by NYRA last year that
rewards juveniles who break their maiden at a NYRA track and follow up with a win in a NYRA graded stakes.
The gray or roan son of Stormy Atlantic, an Anstu Stables homebred, debuted with a 7 1⁄4-length win at Belmont Park on June 19 while ridden by John Velazquez.
Velazquez was committed to ride the Pletcher-trained filly Yes Liz, who ran in the Schuylerville on opening day, instead, and Dilger asked Bridgmohan to make the trip from Churchill Downs to get on Wired Bryan.
His Sanford victory confirmed Dilger’s belief that they had saved something for his next race out of the Belmont debut.
Still, it was the Sanford, but the risk-reward seemed worth it, Dilger said.
“There’s no risk to run,” he said. “He’s a New York-bred, and there were no restricted races for him until later. The timing fitted to run him here. Even if things didn’t work out, we had a plan B for today, but he’s run super.”
Breaking from the No. 4 post in the six-furlong Sanford, Wired Bryan angled toward the rail as Debt Ceiling got inside position in third, with Hollywood Talent leading.
Eric Camacho took a hard hold of Debt Ceiling, who went off as the 9-5 favorite, then let him go again as they came off the turn, but soon after he backed up and finished last of six.
“He just got away from him down the backside, and ran up on horses’ heels,” trainer John Robb said. “Just had a horrible trip, that’s all.”
“I broke nice. He’s a nice horse, and he started to get a little aggressive behind other horses,” Camacho said. “He got behind a bad spot around the turn, and I had to snatch him up and take him back.
“I still was sitting in a perfect position, but when we came to the three-eighths pole, I was already under a drive. I was out of horse. He’s chased fast paces, and he’s run into fast paces before, but today just wasn’t his day.”
Wired Bryan stayed inside around the turn and got in front of Hollywood Talent just outside the quarter pole, cutting the corner nicely and straightening, but Hollywood Talent, ridden by Joel Rosario, didn’t appear to be going away, actually getting a head in front again for a few strides.
Wired Bryan straightened at the top of the stretch, though, and regained control as Hollywood Talent drifted.
It wasn’t a flawless stretch run, as Wired Bryan did a little single-path weaving, but he was never threatened inside the sixteenth pole.
“I was a little nervous when he got headed,” Dilger said. “When Joel came up on his outside, I have to admit that I was a bit nervous at that point. But Shaun came back and said he’s not a one-dimensional horse, he’s a horse that can rate if we need him to.”
“For a young horse to be down on the fence like that — he got passed around the turn, and he showed enough heart to come back and put them away late.”
Dilger worked for Pletcher for two summers in Chicago and four in Delaware, and for seven winters in Florida.
He said it was too early to commit to a race like the Grade I Hopeful at the end of the meet, but it’s certainly something to think about now.
“We learned a lot from the horse today. He’s very professional,” he said. “It’s the first time I’ve entered a stakes race. It’s unbelievable, you know?”
With New York Giants vice president of player evaluation Chris Mara, one of the Starlight partners, in attendance, All in Blue took a bad stumble out of the gate and never really got in the race, finishing fourth.