Updated on 09/17/2011 12:09PM

Pletcher ready for next level


NEW YORK - When Todd Pletcher won a record 40 races at the Belmont Park spring meeting this year, he was understandably cautious about continuing his pace at Saratoga. He had won with plenty of maidens who now would be stepping into the allowance ranks. His stock would be running against the best of everything east of the Rockies instead of just the regulars from the New York circuit.

There's nowhere tougher than Saratoga to win a race, but Pletcher is making it look easy. Instead of cooling off after Belmont, he has turned up the heat, making the trainers' race into a walkover and updating the record books. Through the first 14 days of the 36-day Saratoga meeting, Pletcher has already won 20 races, an astounding total.

Last year, Pletcher was the leading trainer at Saratoga with 19 victories for the entire meeting. Through Thursday's card, he has already surpassed that total and needs just four more wins to equal Sylvester Veitch's 1954 standard of 24 winners at a Saratoga meeting. The only question seems to be whether he can match Veitch's achievement of amassing those 24 winners in just 24 days of racing, but it will be almost shocking if he can't win four more races over the next 10 cards.

The key to Pletcher's success, other than his obvious ability and a strong operation, is a seemingly endless supply of young horses. Of his first 20 winners at Saratoga, nine were maidens. It also doesn't hurt that both the Belmont and Saratoga meetings have had so many off-the-grass races, since Pletcher's vast stable clearly emphasizes dirt horses with early speed rather than the grass routers that everyone else has been scratching repeatedly.

Still, he will be far from out of bullets once every maiden at his disposal is a winner. He is also the leading stakes trainer at the meeting, having already won the Sanford with Chapel Royal, the Schuylerville with Ashado and, of course, the Jim Dandy last Sunday with Strong Hope. He has a passel of top-class 2-year-old colts in addition to the brilliant Chapel Royal, including stakes-winners Deputy Storm, Heckle, and Limehouse and the impressive debut winner Value Plus.

Pletcher, who is now 36, was 22 when he began a seven-year stint as an assistant to D. Wayne Lukas in 1989, and went out on his own in 1996. He has become the trainer of choice for some of the top-spending buyers at yearling sales including Michael Tabor and Eugene and Laura Melnyk

For all his success, and even this year's record achievements, Pletcher has yet to make the final step into the very highest tier of stakes success. He has not won a Breeders' Cup or Triple Crown race, and his lone champion, Left Bank, was last year's handicap Eclipse winner somewhat by default. Other than Left Bank, who won the Cigar Mile at 3 and the Whitney at 4, Pletcher's most brilliant youngsters have generally not stretched out very successfully and the best of them, such as More Than Ready and Trippi, found their greatest success as sprinters.

It's not as if Pletcher can't win longer races - he has taken a C.C.A. Oaks with Tweedside and a Queen's Plate with Archers Bay, and anyone who can get Balto Star to win a Grade 1 race at 1 3/8 miles, as Pletcher did in last month's United Nations, may deserve a special wing in the Hall of Fame. Still, his stock is generally tilted to succeed early and short.

Bobby Frankel is a distant second in the Saratoga trainer standings by a 20-6 count, but in American Grade 1 races this year, Frankel has a 17-2 lead over Pletcher, whose lone Grade 1's this season have come in the U.N. with Balto Star and the Donn with Harlan's Holiday, a colt he was given last year as a fully developed 3-year-old.

This to some extent reflects an inherent disconnect in American racing. While early speed and precocity are dominant factors in winning the kinds of races that Pletcher is corralling at a record clip, the sport's most elite events are more tilted toward stamina and late development. It will be interesting to see if Pletcher, like his mentor Lukas and Bob Baffert, can evolve into as successful a trainer in world-class events as he is on a daily basis and with younger horses.

The way he's winning races at Belmont and Saratoga like no one before him in history, why shouldn't he?