12/30/2009 12:00AM

Pletcher wastes no time unleashing the big guns


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - There aren't many chinks in the Todd Pletcher armor. Be it young or old, male or female, turf or dirt, short or long, the four-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer usually has a horse for the category.

As the calendar turns to 2010, Pletcher and his far-flung uber-stable once again are coiled and primed. With the greatest firepower concentrated in south Florida, primarily at the Palm Meadows training center near Boynton Beach, Pletcher is sitting on another big meet at Gulfstream Park, which begins its 80-day meet Sunday with the $100,000 Hal's Hope Handicap. He will run the uncoupled entry of Quality Road and Harlem Rocker in the Grade 3 race for older horses, a muscle-flexing move that portends a showy start for Pletcher in the handicap division.

"I kind of hate to run Quality Road and Harlem Rocker against each other," Pletcher said earlier this week. "But this looks like the right race to get their seasons under way."

Quality Road, a top 3-year-old of 2009, and Harlem Rocker, a top 3-year-old of 2008, are just two among a handful of Pletcher's older male runners in the top echelon of handicap horses as this year commences. Dunkirk and the newly acquired Bribon are two more while horses such as Take the Points, Munnings, and Ready's Echo are other older runners who could become major players in categories just outside the conventional dirt/route confines of the handicap division.

Quality Road has become somewhat infamous for the starting-gate antics that forced him to be scratched just prior to the Nov. 7 Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita. Pletcher believes the Breeders' Cup incident was an aberration and that subsequent lengthy schooling sessions should relegate the gate problems to the past. Assuming that's true, the focus of racing fans could quickly shift back to how the 4-year-old Elusive Quality colt performs during his races, not before them.

"Obviously he's a very talented and versatile horse and has proven he can be effective in the mile to 1 1/8-mile range," said Pletcher. "We anticipate him moving forward and having a big year."

Quality Road, trained at the time by Jimmy Jerkens, won the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby here last winter. For Pletcher, he has raced three times, winning the 6 1/2-furlong Amsterdam before running third in the Travers and second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Harlem Rocker will be making just his second start in more than a year when he faces his stablemate in the Hal's Hope. A distinctive gray by Macho Uno, the 5-year-old horse ran a close second in a November allowance sprint at Churchill Downs in an effort Pletcher hopes is an ideal setup for the Hal's Hope.

"He got very sick last year, and it took us a while to get him back," Pletcher said. "You'd certainly like to have some of that time back, but that's the way it goes. Right now I think he's as good as he's ever been. That was a good comeback race he had, and he's trained very well since."

Both Quality Road and Harlem Rocker have posted a steady series of recent works at Palm Meadows, with their final breezes for the Hal's Hope having come Monday.

"After Sunday, they'll go their separate ways, probably one to the [Feb. 6] Donn Handicap and the other to a race in New Orleans," Pletcher said.

As for Dunkirk, the colt is on the mend from a non-displaced condylar fracture to his left hind cannon bone incurred during his runner-up finish in the June 6 Belmont Stakes.

"We're a little further behind with him than the others," Pletcher said. "He's basically been galloping for about 30 days now. We're hoping to make a race at the Gulfstream meet as a comeback. He's a horse we've had the highest respect for since very early on, and we'd anticipate that once he's back to his full capability, he could be a force in the handicap ranks."

Bribon, winner of the 2009 Met Mile for trainer Bobby Ribaudo, will be pointed to the March 7 Barbados Gold Cup after being purchased recently by Derrick Smith. "I don't know if he'll have a race before that or not," said Pletcher, adding a repeat in the Met Mile is a logical goal.

Pletcher said Take the Points, the turf specialist who captured the Grade 1 Secretariat and Grade 1 Jamaica last year at 3, will make his seasonal debut in the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap on the Donn undercard while Munnings will make his 4-year-old debut early in the meet in the Jan. 9 Mr. Prospector Handicap. "We feel Munnings belongs on the list of top sprinters heading into this year," he said.

Ready's Echo, part of the stable's West Coast contingent, will run next in the Jan. 9 San Pasqual at Santa Anita with an eye toward the Godolphin Mile in Dubai late March.

This brief rundown of his most promising older horses is just the tip of the iceberg for Pletcher, who as usual has considerable depth in other categories, including 3-year-olds. Pletcher comes off a year during which his stable earned more than $15.3 million, a far cry from the 2007 record he set with more than $28.1 million, but nonetheless good for second to Steve Asmussen for the year. The 2007 season was the last of four straight for which he was voted the Eclipse for top trainer.

Pletcher, a 42-year-old Dallas native, enters the 2010 meet as the five-time defending champion trainer (2005-09) at Gulfstream, a streak longer than any he has compiled at Belmont or Saratoga, where he is a perennial title contender.