04/07/2011 2:28PM

Pletcher gets reality check amid Derby buildup

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Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Todd Pletcher (left) with daughter Hannah, who recently was stricken with appendicitis.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. − Todd Pletcher operates the most successful training operation in the country. Coming off an Eclipse Award-winning season, Pletcher has gotten off to a rousing start in 2011 with 84 winners, including 26 stakes, and his horses have earned more than $4.2 million.

In the undefeated Uncle Mo, Pletcher has the leading contender for the Kentucky Derby. In R Heat Lightning, he has arguably the top contender for the Kentucky Oaks. Last weekend, he won nine races − including three graded stakes − in two days at Gulfstream Park, where he is virtually certain of winning an eighth consecutive trainer’s title. He has already won Aqueduct’s winter meet.

Finally, Pletcher is closing in on joining D. Wayne Lukas and Bobby Frankel as the only trainers whose horses have earned $200 million in purses, a milestone he could possibly reach this weekend.

For all of his success, however, Pletcher − a five-time Eclipse Award winner − got a reality check one month ago on what really matters.

It was March 10, and Uncle Mo − last year’s champion 2-year-old − was two days away from making his 3-year-old debut in the Timely Writer Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Back in New York, Pletcher’s 8-year-old daughter, Hannah, was at the emergency room of a Long Island hospital, being examined for a case of appendicitis.

Naturally wanting to be by his daughter’s side in the event she would have to undergo surgery, Pletcher spent several hours at the Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport trying to get a flight home. He arrived in New York around 11 that night and spent the bulk of the next 36 hours at the hospital.

“Certain situations like that focus you on what’s more important, even if you have Uncle Mo,” Pletcher, 43, said.

By the morning of March 12, confident that his daughter was doing better, Pletcher got on a flight back to south Florida in time to watch Uncle Mo win the Timely Writer Stakes by 3 3/4 lengths to successfully kick off his 3-year-old season.

“If she wasn’t OK or was going to have to have surgery I would have stayed,” Pletcher said, noting that Uncle Mo’s owner, Mike Repole, “was totally understanding. He told me, ‘Don’t even come back.’ And I wouldn’t have, but I knew she was okay.”

Because Hannah Pletcher’s appendix had become perforated and there were concerns of an infection, surgery was not performed. She stayed in the hospital for five days before being released. She remained on antibiotics until April 1 and will undergo surgery to have the appendix removed at a date yet to be determined, according to Todd’s wife, Tracy.

As the trainer of 200 horses, and for someone who is as hands-on as Pletcher, it is easy to become engrossed in work. But Pletcher makes sure to not let his job get in the way of being a father and a husband. In addition to Hannah, the couple has sons Payton, 12, and Kyle, 11.

“As we’re married longer, our kids grow and our parents age, probably like most people he realizes more and more where the priority is,” Tracy Pletcher said. “But Todd’s always made family No. 1. When he’s here it’s really about us and the kids. He’s so good about not bringing things here and letting them spill over. He’s able to be a father and a husband at home.”

On Tuesday, when Uncle Mo’s flight to New York from south Florida was canceled because of weather, Pletcher took the day off to be at home and spend the day with his children, taking them to school and organizing playdates.

“I teased him,” Tracy Pletcher said. “I said, ‘You’re going to be so ready to work at the barn.’ ”

Pletcher was back at the barn early Wednesday morning, overseeing the training of his New York string while awaiting the arrival of Uncle Mo, who will make his next start Saturday in the $1 million Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, where the entire Pletcher family − including Hannah − will be on hand to see if the colt can remain undefeated heading into the May 7 Kentucky Derby.

Though Pletcher has been down the Kentucky Derby trail many times before, winning his first Derby with Super Saver last year, he has never brought a horse of Uncle Mo’s stature to the race.

“We’ve gone in with hopes,” Pletcher said. “I don’t think we ever come into the year knowing we have the horse that is good enough to do everything you want, assuming he were to train on and stay healthy.”

Some have compared Uncle Mo to Seattle Slew, the Triple Crown winner of 1977 who also used the Wood Memorial as his final prep for the Derby. In the Champagne, Uncle Mo’s final time of 1:34.51 was considered equal in terms of fifths to Seattle Slew (1:34 2/5) as the second-fastest Champagne at a mile behind only Devil’s Bag (1:34.20).

“When you think about great horses of all time, he has the potential to be amongst that group if he continues to keep doing what he’s been doing,” Pletcher said of Uncle Mo.

Only 43 years old and just 15 years into his training career, Pletcher has the chance to be considered among the best trainers of all time. He has more than 2,700 career victories and entered the week with $199,156,611 in career purse earnings. If he were to win the Wood, the Carter at Aqueduct, and the Ashland at Keeneland on Saturday, he would surely top the $200 million mark in earnings.

“I hadn’t really thought about the $200 million mark,” Pletcher said. “I was aware we were third in all-time money, which surprised me a little bit. Obviously, it’s a pretty special group with only Wayne Lukas and Bobby Frankel being above $200 million. It’s elite territory, so I’m proud of that.”

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