He could see thiscall coming. Not long after the end of last year's Kentucky Derby, trainer ToddPletcher's cellphone buzzed to life. His 3-year-old colt, Bluegrass Cat, hadjust run second to Barbaro with a solid performance that nonetheless keptPletcher winless in the most significant horse race on the planet. On the otherend was David Lerner, a friend and fraternity brother from Pi Kappa Alpha twodecades ago at Arizona.
"This had better not be a condolence call," Pletcher said to Lerner.
"It's not," deadpanned Lerner, putting the hook in Pletcher's craw."I just wanted to let you know that I'm looking up Phil Mickelson's recordbefore he won that first major."
So this isPletcher's label: the best thoroughbred trainer never to have won the KentuckyDerby. Fourteen times in the past seven years Pletcher saddled horses in theChurchill Downs paddock, and 14 times he sent them back to the barn without ablanket of roses.
In between Derbyshe has dominated the sport. Pletcher, 39, has won three consecutive EclipseAwards for best trainer. In 2006 he won 100 stakes races, breaking mentor D.Wayne Lukas's record of 92, and $26.8 million in purses, obliterating his ownrecord of $20.9 million set the previous year.
He goes to bedearly, some nights before his three children (Payton, 8, Kyle, 7, and Hannah,4), then rises at 3:45 a.m.--"after hitting the snooze button once,"says his wife, Tracy--to supervise a far-flung operation that includes 194high-priced, top-level horses in training, 150 employees and a roster of ownersthat includes some of the wealthiest men in the world. "Todd is not just ahorse trainer, he's a suit," says fellow trainer and three-time Derbywinner Bob Baffert. "He's running a corporation."
Consider the lateafternoon and evening of Saturday, April 7, that Pletcher spent at cold,windswept Aqueduct Race Track in Queens, N.Y. In a span of 62 minutes Pletchersaw one of his horses run in the Wood Memorial and, on simulcast, watched fourothers compete in major graded stakes at four other racetracks across thecountry; an hour after that he returned to the TV monitor to see two more ofhis horses run at Santa Anita and Oaklawn Park. By the end Pletcher was slumpedin a chair next to Tracy in the basement film room at Aqueduct, hands shovedinto the pockets of his topcoat, exhausted. His horses had won more than $1.2million in graded stakes alone. "Then," says Tracy, "we went homeand ate cold pizza with the kids."
Trainer CarlNafzger, 65, who handled 1990 Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic winner Unbridledand has Derby contender Street Sense, says, "Wayne Lukas revolutionizedhorse racing when he started putting so many horses on airplanes. Todd hastaken that to the next level."
To a broaderaudience, all of this is simply trivia until Pletcher wins a Kentucky Derby--orany other Triple Crown race. (He's also winless in one Preakness and sixBelmont starts.) Pletcher is likely to send five horses--a quarter of thefield--to the post at Churchill Downs on May 5: Florida Derby winner ScatDaddy, Louisiana Derby winner Circular Quay, Illinois Derby winner Cowtown Cat,Tampa Bay Derby runner-up Any Given Saturday and Santa Anita third-placefinisher Sam P. As many as four of the five could be among the top 10 wageringinterests in the race.
"I honestlydon't think I've ever taken the best horse to the Derby," he says."That doesn't mean I'm not frustrated that I haven't won it. This year wehave our strongest chance, but face it--only one horse is going to win, andyou've got to get it right on that day."
Pletcher has beenJoe Montana most of the year and Jim Kelly on Derby Day, yet he does not floghimself and instead offers a healthy perspective that often leaves inquisitorsexasperated at his lack of desperation. A couple of years ago another ofPletcher's fraternity brothers, Mike Cagnina, dogged him about his 0-fer atChurchill Downs and asked if it bothered him. "Yeah," said Pletcher,his voice rich with sarcasm. "I'm not sure if I can get on with my lifeuntil I win one."
Lukas, 71, who haswon four Derbys, says, "It's going to happen, then he'll win four orfive."
Pletcher'sdisposition comes from growing up entrenched in the fickle racing game. Hisfather, Jake, was a quarter-horse and thoroughbred trainer who worked at tracksin the West, Midwest and South. Todd was born in Dallas and lived in El Pasoand Arcadia, Calif., and, after his parents divorced, in Bossier City, La., andSan Antonio, where he graduated from James Madison High and met his futurewife. Every summer was spent on the circuit with his father, in locales asquaint as the now-defunct Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha and as stately as Del Mar, northof San Diego.
He would spend allmorning at the barn and all afternoon in the track kitchen, hunched over avideo-game console. "He'd work with me in the morning," says Jake,"but back then most places didn't allow kids at the track during the races,so Todd would be in the kitchen playing Pac-Man. He got real good atPac-Man."
That, and atplanning his life. "I was following my dad around at sales when I was 10years old, checking out horses," Todd says. "I knew pretty early onthat this is what I was going to be doing."
At his parents'insistence Pletcher enrolled in Arizona's racetrack-management program and alsopursued a degree in animal science. "He did well," says Jake,"although he probably knew more than most of his teachers."
At the Pike House,Pletcher's frat brothers teased him endlessly about his major. "We calledhim a hillbilly," says Chris Halligan, who lived with Pletcher for threeyears. "He'd give it right back. 'Hey, good luck with that Englishmajor.'" The boys in the house loved the times when Pletcher dragged themto a simulcasting at Rillito Park Race Track in Tucson and fattened theirwallets by pointing out a sure thing, and they admired his diligence at heavingup errant three-pointers in intramural basketball games.
Pletcher workedone summer for Lukas in Chicago and the following one for the legendary CharlieWhittingham in California. One night he and Halligan lay awake in their frathouse loft. Halligan asked Pletcher, "Do you think you'll ever have a horserun in the Kentucky Derby?"
Pletcher, 21,said, "I better."
On a cold, drizzlyApril morning at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky., Pletcher is deep intohis routine by 6:40 a.m. Two sets of six horses have already worked out, withfour more to go. He has nearly 200 horses in training every morning at fourlocations, yet he can identify each in startling detail--age, breeding, health,upcoming works and race. "Anything you ask him about any horse, he has iton the tip of his tongue," says Demi O'Byrne, 63, who is the bloodstockadviser to some of the most powerful owners in the horse business.
Pletcher isequally adept at keeping his owners happy. "That's the toughest part of hisjob: managing owners," says Baffert. "Owners have big egos."Pletcher handles his clientele with honesty and preparation. "You start toask him a question, and he's two steps ahead of you," says Jim Scatuorchio,the retired Wall Street millionaire who owns half of Scat Daddy and has beenwith Pletcher since 1998. "He gives you good news quickly and bad newsquickly." Almost as impressively, Pletcher keeps his best horses--and hisbest owners--from running against each other (until a race like the KentuckyDerby, of course).
Pletcher learnedmuch from his father, from Whittingham and from Lukas--for whom he went to worktwo weeks after graduating from Arizona in 1989 and remained with until late'95--but he kept his natural demeanor when he went out on his own. In his primeLukas was bold and outspoken; Pletcher is as cool and conservative as a pressedblue suit, a quality admired by his owners. "He is a straightforward,no-nonsense, correct individual," says Michael Tabor, the Britishbillionaire who owns Circular Quay and the other half of Scat Daddy. Formerjockey Angel Cordero Jr., 64, who works for Pletcher as an exercise rider andassistant trainer (and represents Pletcher's favorite big-race jockey, JohnVelazquez), says, "He doesn't yell--ever."
After buying ScatDaddy as a yearling for $250,000, Scatuorchio gave Pletcher and his father eacha one-quarter ownership of the colt. In September father and son sold theirshares to Tabor for an undisclosed amount that Todd calls "a financial homerun, a chance to get security for my family." Most practical of all,Pletcher dropped appeals in December and accepted a 45-day suspension for a2004 incident in which one of his horses was found to have minute--butillegal--amounts of an anesthetic in his system. Pletcher's lawyers are stilllitigating a civil suit that might bring vindication against charges thatPletcher calls "outrageous and unjust." (He suspects the anestheticcame from a veterinarian's contaminated syringe.) But to continue appealing andrisk a spring suspension? "That would have been unfair to [our]owners," he says. It would have been bad for business.
Friends see a muchlooser side of the trainer. When a group that included Pletcher, Halligan andScatuorchio took a trip to Atlantic City in December, they drank martinis andshot craps, Scatuorchio holding the dice and Pletcher leaning over the table,narrating every throw with his signature line: "That's what the people cameto see!"
Several weekslater Cagnina invited Pletcher to join him at the Super Bowl in Miami.Pletcher, who relocates his family from Garden City, N.Y., to Boynton Beach,Fla., from late December through March, accepted, but he told Cagnina to holdoff on buying tickets. "I was with another friend, and we met at Todd'shouse before the game," says Cagnina. "We had a few beers. Then we goto the game, and Todd has gotten us these unbelievable seats, 50-yard line,halfway up."
They watched thegame together, and afterward they took their party deep into the night at aSouth Florida bar. Cagnina dropped Pletcher off at his home, and when heawakened the next morning, he found a voice-mail message that Pletcher had lefthim while driving to work at 4 a.m. Horses do not take days off, and Derbydreams, however elusive, will not be put on hold.
Down the Stretch
More Kentucky Derby news, analysis and predictions from Tim Layden. ONLY ATSI.COM
How to fill out your Trifecta for the KentuckyDerby
1. Scat Daddy (above)
The most consistent horse in a year that has utterly lacked consistency. He isthe only Derby starter to win two major preps. Can stalk the pace or close.Karma? He is being ridden by Edgar Prado, who was aboard Barbaro in last year'sDerby and ill-fated Preakness.
2. Great Hunter
Take another look at the Blue Grass Stakes. Corey Nakatani moved Great Hunterearlier than he wanted, and he was still making a second run when shut off inthe stretch. He could be sitting on a huge race.
This scary fast winner of the Arkansas Derby is vaguely reminiscent of BellamyRoad in '05. He also came in off a huge prep romp but wasn't ready for theDerby fight. But go against Curlin at your own risk.
Photographs by Bill Frakes
Photographs by Bill Frakes
Any Given Saturday is part of the strong cast carrying the hopes of Pletcher, athree-time Eclipse Award winner.
BILL DENVER/ICON SMI (SCAT DADDY)
KINETIC CORPORATION (SILKS)