by Trevor Whenham - 05/26/2006
The decision of Bernardini's connections not to run him in the Belmont falls somewhere between odd and completely ridiculous. One guy who couldn't be happier, however, is Todd Pletcher. He may not have had the horse power to beat Bernardini, but now he's the guy to beat in New York. He's definitely sending two horses out for the race, and without Bernardini in the field, a third runner seems likely.
Pletcher isn't nearly as well known as the big personalities in training like Bob Baffert, D. Wayne Lukas or Nick Zito, but he's proven himself to be every bit the trainer that they are so far in his career. He went to the prestigious University of Arizona Race Track Industry Program. During summers there, he had jobs as a groom for both Lukas and Charlie Whittingham. When he graduated he went to work for Lukas, first as a foreman and later as an assistant trainer.
In more than four years as Lukas' assistant, he worked with such greats as Thunder Gulch, Serena's Song and Flanders. He set out on his own in December of 1995. Since then he has won more than $90 million in purses to become the eighth winningest trainer of all time. He was the Eclipse Award winner for top trainer in both 2004 and 2005, and he set the all-time single season earnings record in 2005. Not bad for a guy who is only 38.
Pletcher has had innumerable stakes successes, including many by the great Champion filly Ashado, but he has yet to get it done in the Triple Crown. He has had 14 Kentucky Derby starters, including Keyed Entry and Bluegrass Cat this year, but the distant second place finish of Bluegrass Cat and a second by Invisible Ink in 2001 is the closest he has come to Triple Crown glory. That could change in New York, though.
Besides the Preakness, there are two other important 3-year-old races run on the third Saturday in May. The Sir Barton Stakes is on the Preakness undercard at Pimlico, and the Peter Pan Stakes is run at Belmont. Pletcher won both of them this year, setting himself up nicely for the Belmont. Both races have been springboards to Belmont victories in the past. Contemporary Peter Pan winners who have gone on to win the Belmont include A.P. Indy in 1992, Colonial Affair the next year and Lemon Drop Kid in 1999.
The Sir Barton wasn't even close. High Cotton took the lead right out of the gate and never gave it up. By the top of the stretch the race was clearly over. He beat Ultimate Goal, his stable mate, by 5 1/2 lengths. His time of 1:42.95 for 1 1/16 miles was respectable, especially considering he wasn't challenged. It was the horse's best race in months. High Cotton put his stamp on the Triple Crown trail with a decisive win in the Rushaway Stakes, but a terrible ninth place showing in the Arkansas Derby ended the Derby dreams.
Of Pletcher's three horses, High Cotton is the one that is not certain to head to the Belmont. He has decent breeding to handle the race, including A.P. Indy as his dam sire, but there is always a question of whether a front-runner can handle the lead for a mile and a half. My guess is that we will see him on June 10.
If the Sir Barton was an easy win, the Peter Pan was anything but. Lewis Michael was able to settle on the lead of a slow pace and opened up comfortable lead heading into the final quarter. It looked like the horse would win it, but Pletcher's Sunriver wouldn't give up. Over a blistering final furlong Sunriver fought to catch Lewis Michael and finally passed him just before the line, winning by a short neck.
Sunriver, a full brother to Ashado, was pointed towards the Derby and was considered by many, myself included, to be a real threat. Unfortunately, his graded stakes earnings were only the 21st best in the field and there were just 20 spots, so he was unable to enter. He's got the pedigree to handle the distance, he showed that he likes the track and that he has heart to spare, and he will be a legitimate threat in the Belmont.
The third Pletcher horse under consideration is Bluegrass Cat. He was a surprise second place finisher in the Derby, but that result wouldn't have seemed unlikely at the start of this year. He won three races as a two year old, and a win in the Sam F. Davis to start the year put him near the top of the list of Derby contenders. A disappointing second in the Tampa Bay Derby followed by a very flat 4th in the Blue Grass dimmed his star significantly, though.
Bluegrass Cat got a clean trip in the Derby and capitalized on it to grab second. It is open to interpretation whether that signified a return to form for the horse, or if he just benefited form the trip. Regardless, he has the pedigree for Belmont and will be a factor.
The presence of High Cotton could be positive for Pletcher's other two horses. If he doesn't have the gas to hold the lead he will at least set up the pace for the other two. Sunriver showed that he can close over the Belmont track, and Bluegrass Cat clearly benefited from a fast pace on the front end last time out.
Without Bernardini in the field, it is very likely that Sunriver, coming off his strong win in the Peter Pan, will be the favorite in the field. Bluegrass Cat could also be the first or second choice. No matter what, Pletcher will be a huge factor in the race.