02/11/2010 12:00AM

As Pletcher's assistant, Thomas on solid path


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Jonathan Thomas has worn out a path to the Aqueduct winner's circle this winter. As the New York-based assistant to trainer Todd Pletcher, Thomas has been the guiding hand behind a stable that has won a meet-leading 25 races, with a .416 winning percentage, through the first half of Aqueduct's inner-track season.

Not bad for a man who, while riding steeplechase races competitively 10 years ago, suffered a severe spinal injury in a fall that left him paralyzed. Doctors told Thomas he would never walk again.

Thomas was not only walking a year later, he eventually returned to the saddle to ride steeplechase and flat races before embarking on a training career that included stints with three high-profile trainers as well as a job working for King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia.

Thomas, 29, is about to complete his second year as an assistant to Pletcher, and though he hopes to someday have his own stable, he said, "There's good reason to argue that 80 percent of the training jobs probably aren't as good as this."

That Thomas would have a career in horse racing was preordained. His family lived and worked on Paul Mellon's Rokeby Farm in Virginia. Vernon Thomas, Jonathan's grandfather, worked on Mellon's dairy farm, delivering fresh eggs and milk. Jonathan's parents both broke horses for Mellon.

"My dad worked with the yearlings," said Thomas, who was 12 when Mellon won the Derby with Sea Hero. "He used to ride Fort Marcy in from the paddock."

Thomas did a lot of show jumping and foxhunting growing up and made what he called the "natural progression" to steeplechase riding. As a 19-year-old amateur, Thomas won 13 races, including the Grade 2 National Hunt Cup Handicap in May 2000 aboard Darn Tipalarm at Radnor, a track in Malvern, Pa.

His next ride aboard Darn Tipalarm was equally memorable, but for all the wrong reasons. In the Grade 2 Ferguson Memorial Hunt Handicap on Oct. 6, 2000, at Colonial Downs, Darn Tipalarm and Thomas were approaching the final fence, in contention for third place, as Thomas recalls, when Darn Tipalarm fell. Thomas landed on his back.

Thomas said it wasn't the worst fall he had experienced, but how he landed on the rock-hard course caused a fracture of his L-1 vertebra. Thomas spent several months at a medical center in Richmond, Va. Following two operations, Thomas was being prepared for life in a wheelchair. He said he was too ignorant to be depressed.

"I was ignorant to a lot of the stuff that was going on, and ignorance was bliss at that stage," Thomas said. "I didn't grasp the seriousness of it at the time, I guess. A little bit of denial, too, probably helped."

Several months after the second surgery, Thomas began to regain movement in his toes.

"My body gradually started to come back," he said. "It started with toe movement and basically worked its way up from there. At first I was going to be in a wheelchair and then on crutches and then [doctors said], 'You'll be on crutches for the rest of your life.' I went through the whole gamut, basically, and started from scratch."

Despite the serious injury, Thomas returned to competitive riding in 2002, saying, "It's my life, it's what I love to do." At the same time, he began working for Christophe Clement at Gulfstream and Saratoga. He worked for Clement into early 2005 before briefly working for Dale Romans.

Thomas would still compete in steeplechase races, and in 2007 he represented America in a European amateur riding competition that included riders from about 20 countries. He finished fifth.

"It was more about wanting to come back and ride successfully and go out on my own terms," Thomas said.

Also, in 2007, on the recommendation of bloodstock agent Tony Cobitz, Thomas got a job in Saudi Arabia working as an assistant to Julio Gardel, who trained for King Abdullah. While he was there, Thomas said he and Gardel won 20 of 32 races. The only disappointment, he said, was when Premium Tap finished fourth in the King's Cup.

In 2008, a week away from re-signing for another year with King Abdullah, Thomas became aware that Pletcher needed an assistant to replace Seth Benzel. Thomas met Pletcher at the Dubai World Cup and came back to the U.S. shortly thereafter to spend a few days in New York. He was offered the job and took it.

"It wasn't just the horse flesh but the chance to work, not only for Todd, but with Todd for more than half the year at Belmont," Thomas said. "To me it's like going to graduate school. I'm trying to make all the right moves I can to hopefully start a training career, and to me you just could not do any better."

Thomas stays year-round at Belmont. During the Saratoga meet, he is at Belmont with about 80 horses. This winter, he has overseen a stable of 38 horses, including stakes winners Awesome Ashley, Distorted Passion, and Understatement. Awesome Ashley and Distorted Passion have since been retired.

"Those horses were with me last year, and we were able to win with all of them again," Thomas said. "That's kind of a neat feeling."

Thomas has daily contact with Pletcher, who spends the winter in south Florida and also has a stable in Southern California.

"I try my best to do what I think Todd would do," Thomas said. "I am given rein to improvise as needed, but we discuss everything."

Pletcher said he has been impressed with Thomas's work ethic and knowledge.

"He's exceeded all of our expectations, caught onto the program very quickly," Pletcher said. "He gets along with all of our staff and owners, communicates very well, and he's got very good horsemanship skills."

While Thomas said his decisions are preparing him for his own training career, he is more than happy to walk - not run - to that opportunity.

"That's basically the direction I've tried to be heading the past couple of years, but I'm certainly very realistic about the current climate," he said. "If I were not training, there certainly wouldn't be a better place than I am."