Todd Pletcher's Triple Crown Woes
by Trevor Whenham - 06/01/2007
Todd Pletcher. There's a name that has been giving people headaches recently. It's absolutely incomprehensible that a guy can be so dominant in all but three races every year, and so truly terrible in those three - the Triple Crown. If you don't follow horse racing closely you won't have a clear sense of just how good Pletcher is. He has the biggest and most dominant stable in the country (only Steve Asmussen, the trainer of Curlin, can rival the scope of his operation, and even he doesn't measure up). He has a serious contender in virtually every significant stakes race on the continent. In 2005 he set a single season earnings record with purses of nearly $21 million. He broke that mark the next year. By October. I could go on, but this is all you really need to remember - this guy is really, really good.
That's why his Triple Crown performance is both so laughable and so difficult to understand. Pletcher is 0-28 on the three biggest stages the sport has to offer, and it's not like he has even been close very much. He's had far more success at finishing last than he has at legitimately challenging for a win. This year is as good an example as any of the problems he has had. He had five horses entered in the 20-horse field of the Kentucky Derby. That's pretty good odds. Not good enough, apparently. The top five finishers in a race get a piece of the purse. Pletcher's top runner, Circular Quay, finished sixth. That means Pletcher went home without anything to show for his time. Even worse, two of his horses struggled home in 18th and 20th. His showing in the Preakness was only slightly better, but that was largely because the field was smaller. His two horses in that nine-horse field ended up fifth and sixth.
Pletcher's Triple Crown failures, and the media attention that they receive, have made speculation about his Belmont intentions all the more interesting. Though the story changes constantly and only Pletcher knows what he is planning for sure, the best guess is that he has two horses that could start the three year old marathon. Circular Quay has been training with the intention of running. He'll be joined with by far the most intriguing potential contender outside of the big three from the first two races - Kentucky Oaks winner Rags to Riches. This is a filly that makes other fillies look so out of place that it's as if they are of a different species. She's never run against the boys, but there is no reason to think that she can't handle it. If she gets the chance, that is. Though Pletcher seemed initially eager, he was waiting until Street Sense tipped his hand before he made a decision. Now that the Derby winner is out for the Belmont, Pletcher could have the incentive he needs to enter the filly and take another shot at ending his Triple Crown futility.
The most telling indicator of the depth of Pletcher's current woes is the moves made by two jockeys. John Velazquez and Garrett Gomez are two of Pletcher's more regular riders. Velazquez handled Circular Quay in the first two legs, and Gomez was on Any Given Saturday in the Derby and King of the Roxy in the Preakness. Given that, it seems odd that both riders would accept other mounts before Pletcher has made his decisions. Gomez' move can be understood - he is taking over the talented but hard luck Hard Spun. The choice by Velazquez, though, is bizarre. He is on Slew's Tizzy - hardly a world class horse unless I am really missing something. There are many reasons why the moves could be made, but one thing seems clear - they probably wouldn't have happened if all was peaceful and harmonious in the Pletcher camp.
So why does Pletcher struggle so badly in the Triple Crown? There are probably several reasons, and several more that are discussed that aren't at all right. I'll do my part and throw out three that I favor, but it all boils down to one thing - as a casual bettor you probably want a pretty good reason to bet on him to win until he proves himself in the big three races. I respect this guy and what he has done for the most part, but his Triple Crown woes are more than coincidence.
1) His Triple Crown horses just aren't that good. Sure, he piled up an impressive list of prep victories this year, but the guy also picked his spots very carefully. He sat Circular Quay out for two months because he didn't like what he saw in the opposition. He sent Cowtown Cat to Illinois instead of one of the major preps. He shuffled his lineup several times leading up to the Derby. Maybe the fact is that the horses he has this year just aren't at the top of the class. The same can be said about a lot of his past Triple Crown runners. Bluegrass Cat, second in the Derby last year, went on to have an impressive season that was sadly shortened by injury. Beyond that, though, most of his Triple Crown horses haven't exactly gone on to higher heights. Anyone remember Invisible Ink? Limehouse? Keyed Entry? Didn't think so. The problem is that the public is going to consider any Pletcher trained horse better than it necessarily is because of who trains it.
2) Owners aren't sending him top three year olds. After a while, wealthy owners would probably get the idea that Pletcher isn't the guy to get them the roses. Maybe he has too many horses and is too spread out, or maybe he just doesn't have the touch with youngsters that Bob Baffert or his mentor D. Wayne Lukas have. Regardless, it only makes sense that owners would start to shy away from sending their top three year olds to him, or from buying Triple Crown contenders in the first place if they are loyal to Pletcher and don't want to use another trainer. If that hasn't already happened, it will.
3) It's not just the Triple Crown. Pletcher wins virtually everything, but he's clearly not a big day guy. His Breeders' Cup record is only slightly less pitiful at two for 41, and both of those victories, with Ashado and Speightstown, came in the same year. Racing has four days every year that anyone outside of the hardcore fans pay attention to, and Pletcher is lousy on all of them. Maybe his strength is, as I said earlier, picking spots or winning against fields that aren't overly talented from top to bottom. Whatever the case, Pletcher can't be called a truly great trainer until he starts winning when it matters.