01/14/2009 12:00AM

Pletcher targets return to top

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Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Todd Pletcher's Eclipse Award streak has come to an end at four.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - No one has planned a benefit outing for Todd Pletcher. There will be no pity parties, no wakes. In terms of the Eclipse Awards, his streak of dominance ended when he did not make the list of finalists for 2008, and yet nobody would dare say that Pletcher's time has come and gone.

Since Eclipses were first awarded in 1971, only three men have been honored as top trainer as many as four years in a row: Laz Barrera (1976-79), Bobby Frankel (2000-03), and Pletcher (2004-07). Two others, D. Wayne Lukas (1985-87) and Bob Baffert (1997-99), have won three in a row. Frankel is the only trainer to have won five Eclipse Awards.

With Pletcher excluded as one of the three finalists for top trainer for 2008 - the Eclipse is widely expected to go to Steve Asmussen over Frankel and Richard Dutrow Jr. - he recently took a few minutes to talk about the streak and its end.

He explains how his stable did not perform to its lofty previous standards, while pledging to return to the top.

"Obviously, the fifth one, historically, has been pretty tough to get," Pletcher said between races on a recent program at Gulfstream Park, where many of the best horses in his multi-fronted stable are currently active. "It was clear that only one guy deserved the Eclipse this year, and it was Steve. Our hats are off to him."

At a mere 41, Pletcher still stands an excellent chance to set all sorts of meaningful records before his career ends. In 2008, his stable won 208 races and nearly $13.8 million in purses, sensational numbers for almost anyone. But the earnings were less than half the record $28.1 million his stable collected in 2007.

"We retired a lot of our best horses from one year to the next," he said. "Rags to Riches, English Channel, Any Given Saturday, Lawyer Ron, Scat Daddy, and more. Combine that with the fact we had a subpar crop of 2-year-olds in 2007, and this is what you get. I'm not dissatisfied with our year by any means. We were leading trainer at Gulfstream and at Keeneland in the spring, and we had more graded stakes wins (27) than anybody. So by any normal measure, it was another great year. It just wasn't our best."

Through more than 35 years of Eclipse voting, once a trainer has had his run, getting back to the top has been difficult.

Said Baffert: "I felt like maybe I could've gotten four in a row, but Frankel was coming on, and I think it gets to the point where they [voters] like to see new blood in there. Every year you win, I think the next year you've got to do something even more special. Once you're on top, it's very hard to sustain that excellence. You've really got to have the drive to do it, and that's hard over a long period."

Lukas, who had a major influence on Pletcher as his boss for seven years before Pletcher went out on his own in December 1995, predicted his former pupil will win more Eclipses.

"I don't think this year waters down his achievements," Lukas said. "It's hard to stay up there. I know. When we were winning all those titles, I thought it was a lot harder to stay up there than to get there.

"Todd certainly has the clientele base to get back to the top and he's an excellent horseman. But once you've been there and somebody else gets in, it seems like those awards get pretty elusive."

After his three-year run, Lukas won one more Eclipse, in 1994. Conversely, Frankel won an Eclipse in 1993, well before going on his four-year tear.

"This stuff cycles," Frankel said. "Everything goes in cycles. Todd's had his run, and now it's everybody else again. When you're in the middle of it, you think your run is never going to end. But it does.

"I'm sure he'll have a chance to do it again. He's young. You never know. I'm still trying to win another one, but you've got to come up with the right horses at the right time. All of a sudden, you've got two or three really good ones and you're back in it. It's funny the way it all works."

Pletcher, whose stable has more than $156.8 million in purse earnings (fourth all-time) in his 13 years of training, said he is as ambitious as ever.

"You'd like to think that if you ever got one more Eclipse, you'd be happy," he said. "That's how hard it is to win them. It's what we strive for each and every year. We're just going to keep focused and do the best we can."

Pletcher said the preliminary outlook for 2009 is good, and the year got off to a promising start when Cowboy Cal won the Grade 2 San Pasqual last weekend at Santa Anita. He said the return of proven stakes horses such as Monba and Nite Lite will bolster the ranks and that he has hopes for an excellent crop of 2-year-olds. In all, he carries about 200 horses split among several divisions at any given time of year.

"We're still kind of in a rebuilding stage, but we do have quite a few unstarted horses that have shown promise," he said.

Baffert said he can empathize with Pletcher but that every top trainer always has the Eclipse in the back of his mind.

"I hope I get it again," Baffert said. "I'd like to get it again. Hey, when I win the Triple Crown, I'll get it that year.

"I think Todd can come back and get it again if he wants. It's a lot about timing and the horses you have, but obviously he's got a lot going for him. If he wants it, he'll get it."