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Long day's journey to Cup success
ELMONT, N.Y. - Todd Pletcher was sitting on the couch in his Garden City home, shoes off, hands behind his head, relaxing. His two sons, Payton, 5, and Kyle, 4, were running around in their Halloween costumes. His daughter, Hannah, 1, was finishing her lunch of macaroni and cheese.
Tracy Pletcher brought her husband and a visitor a cup of coffee. The television was on, first to the NFL pre-game shows, then to the races from Belmont Park. It could have been any house on any fall Sunday in Long Island.
But only with some help from Mother Nature was Pletcher able to steal an extra two hours with his family. This is one of the busiest times of the year for him. On Saturday, he will be in his native state of Texas attempting to cap the best year of his professional life with his first
victory in the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships.
Pletcher, 37, is North America's leading trainer by purse earnings this year with $13,707,158 and 203 winners through Thursday. Both are career-best numbers, and the purse earnings put him $1.4 million ahead of Bobby Frankel, who is second. But Pletcher is 0 for 12 in the Breeders' Cup.
Now he has the chance to win more than one race. In Speightstown (Sprint), Ashado (Distaff), and Proud Accolade (Juvenile), Pletcher figures to have a top-three betting choice in three of the eight Breeders' Cup races. Ready's Gal will have more than a puncher's chance in the Juvenile Fillies, and Newfoundland will be a longshot in the Classic.
"We've entered a lot of horses that were longshots," said Pletcher, who finished second in last year's Juvenile Fillies with Ashado and third in the Juvenile with Chapel Royal. "In races like these, you don't mind taking a shot. But this is sort of like in the Kentucky Oaks with Ashado, where we're showing up with a big chance in one of those races."
How did Pletcher get such a chance? By putting in days like this one, a Sunday in which he had already worked 16 horses before an off-the-turf scratch gave him a chance to return home for a few hours. Still to come was a trip back to his barn at Belmont Park, where he would saddle four horses to race.
An early start
Pletcher's home is 3.1 miles from his Belmont Park barn. On this morning, Sunday, Oct. 17, he arrived at his barn at 4:26, but only after he had inspected both the training track and main track. Pletcher wanted to see how overnight showers affected both tracks. He was satisfied with the condition of the main track, so all workouts would be conducted there. Pletcher had 40 horses to take to the track in six sets, 16 to work, 22 to gallop, and 2 to jog.
Pletcher read some faxes as his crew was busy taking horses' temperatures and administering proper medications to horses who would work. Six of the seven exercise riders began trickling in. The seventh, Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr., would arrive later.
At 5:20, as blacksmith Ray Amato began shoeing the horses that would run that day, Pletcher began the daily task of examining the legs and ankles of his 42-horse Belmont stable. He has 119 horses in all, including 45 at Saratoga and 32 at Monmouth Park.
At 5:42, exercise rider Patti Krotenko got aboard Balto Star, who would gallop in the first set, which also included Proud Accolade.
Exercise rider Eddie Bernhardt, whose nickname is Yo-Yo, got ready to be legged up on Indy Moon. At 133 pounds, he is the largest of Pletcher's riders.
"The toughest thing we have to do in the morning is give Eddie a leg up," Pletcher said.
It was still pitch black when the first set hit the track at 6 a.m. Pletcher and assistant Tristan Barry watched from a viewing stand at the 1 1/4-mile gap. You could see each horse for only a few strides.
Sunrise came at 7:09, and the second set, which included five horses scheduled to breeze, had gone out about 30 minutes earlier. Still, there was enough light to watch from the box seat area, where Pletcher, Barry, and a couple of private clockers were all armed with stopwatches.
Pletcher noticed a puddle just past the wire that he had not seen earlier in the morning. As it turned out, most of the horses on the track noticed it, too, and shied away from it.
The fifth set of the morning had five workers, including Ashado, who went in company with the unraced 2-year-old Harlington. Cordero was aboard Ashado, who worked head and head with Harlington for five furlongs in 1:00.72 and galloped out strongly.
"The gallop out was a little too strong," Pletcher told Cordero back at the barn.
The sixth and final set included Speightstown, who could be the favorite for the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Before the work, Pletcher instructed Cordero, now aboard West Virginia, to work to the inside of Speightstown, under Krotenko.
As the work unfolded, Cordero erred and went to the outside. Speightstown worked five furlongs in 1:01.72. West Virginia actually finished about a half-length ahead of Speightstown.
Back at the barn, Cordero, still atop the horse, was apologetic. "I'm sorry, boss, I'm sorry," Cordero said.
Pletcher, in his dead-pan style, responded: "It's only the Breeders' Cup. No big deal."
Pletcher's even-keeled demeanor never changes, and it's hard to tell when things are going well and when they're not.
"A few years ago that might have really upset me," Pletcher said, referring to Cordero's ride. "But the reality of it is you're not going to be able to change it at that point. I haven't found getting overly upset - throwing water buckets - helps."
At 10 a.m., Cordero, who is a jockey agent, had some bad news for Pletcher. John Velazquez, Cordero's client and Pletcher's main rider, was sick and would not be able to ride. Pletcher sighed, realizing he would field phone calls from every agent on the grounds. Fortunately, Pletcher had Velazquez on only two horses, one of which was scratched. Pletcher named Javier Castellano on the other horse, Summer Raven.
A few hours to chill
With the second race off the turf, Pletcher scratched his horse, Argento, and headed home. Tracy, Payton, Kyle, and Hannah arrived from church a few minutes after Pletcher returned from the barn.
"The toughest part of training horses is the amount of down time is so minimal it's difficult to be at home with your family much," said Pletcher. "With multiple divisions, on dark days you're at Monmouth or Saratoga or both, and instead of catching up you're actually away more."
Tracy Pletcher, Todd's high school sweetheart and wife of 12 years, is more than understanding.
"We are lucky he gets to be here every day at lunch," she said. "On some days, he can take Payton off the bus. We went out to the barn yesterday and we go to the races on the weekends."
Tracy Pletcher, 36, added that her husband doesn't take his business home with him.
"When he comes home he's just a husband and a father," Tracy said. "The phone certainly rings, but he's usually playing with the kids, or if I need him to do something he'll do it. If something goes wrong at work, he certainly doesn't show it at home. I don't know how he handles what he handles."
Pletcher headed back to the barn around 2:30. He checked on his runners, made sure the right equipment was brought over, and went to the track. Before saddling Honey Ryder in the sixth, he watched the simulcast of the fifth from Keeneland, where a horse he trains, Larger Than Life, held onto fourth after setting the early pace.
After giving Castellano a leg up on Honey Ryder, Pletcher went to the box seats to watch. Honey Ryder got off slowly, was far back, and rallied for third. Walking back to the paddock to saddle his next horse, Pletcher spotted blood on Honey Ryder's left hind foot. She apparently had been stepped on leaving the gate.
Tracy Pletcher and the kids arrived at Belmont before the seventh, in which Flamenco was the 1-2 favorite in the Cowdin. Just before the start, Flamenco broke through the gate. "That's never good," Pletcher said, his binoculars focused on the gate.
Flamenco broke sharply, stalked the pace, and was too good for the group, winning the Cowdin by three-quarters of a length. Pletcher also finished third with Upscaled, a longshot.
In the Grade 3 Astarita, Pletcher had the second choice in Summer Raven. Pletcher wasn't overly concerned that Castellano was riding instead of Velazquez, because Summer Raven is a speed horse who places herself. At the top of the stretch, Summer Raven looked like all she needed was to be turned loose. But Summer Raven had no punch and finished a well-beaten third.
The family headed home while Pletcher headed back to the barn.
Back in his office, Pletcher called Anthony Sciametta, who runs Pletcher's Monmouth Park division, to go over what the horses will do the next day. Sciametta is a fan of the Miami Dolphins, who just lost their fifth game of the season, a fact that Pletcher was well aware of. "How ya doin' today, Anthony?" Pletcher said. "How did the Dolphins do today?"
Since none of his owners came to watch the races Sunday, Pletcher called each one of them to go over the races.
As the clock approached 6 p.m., Pletcher was waiting for the results of an endoscopic exam of Summer Raven. The exam came back clean. Satisfied, Pletcher headed home for dinner.
After trying to stay up to watch the Yankees-Red Sox game, Pletcher called it a night around 11:30 and finally fell asleep.
Another busy morning was not far off.