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Almost Famous

Todd Pletcher is the nation's hottest trainer, but full recognition won't come until one of his horses wins the Kentucky Derby. He plans to send five into the starting gate on May 5

Posted: Tuesday April 24, 2007 11:40AM; Updated: Tuesday April 24, 2007 11:40AM
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Horse Trainer Todd Pletcher.
Horse Trainer Todd Pletcher.
Bill Frakes/SI
SI's Picks
How to fill out your Trifecta for the Kentucky Derby
1. Scat Daddy The most consistent horse in a year that has utterly lacked consistency. He is the only Derby starter to win two major preps. Can stalk the pace or close. Karma? He is being ridden by Edgar Prado, who was aboard Barbaro in last year's Derby and ill-fated Preakness.
2. Great Hunter Take another look at the Blue Grass Stakes. Corey Nakatani moved Great Hunter earlier than he wanted, and he was still making a second run when shut off in the stretch. He could be sitting on a huge race.
3. Curlin This scary fast winner of the Arkansas Derby is vaguely reminiscent of Bellamy Road in '05. He also came in off a huge prep romp but wasn't ready for the Derby fight. But go against Curlin at your own risk.
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He could see this call coming. Not long after the end of last year's Kentucky Derby, trainer Todd Pletcher's cellphone buzzed to life. His 3-year-old colt, Bluegrass Cat, had just run second to Barbaro with a solid performance that nonetheless kept Pletcher winless in the most significant horse race on the planet. On the other end was David Lerner, a friend and fraternity brother from Pi Kappa Alpha two decades ago at Arizona.

"This had better not be a condolence call," Pletcher said to Lerner. "It's not," deadpanned Lerner, putting the hook in Pletcher's craw. "I just wanted to let you know that I'm looking up Phil Mickelson's record before he won that first major."

So this is Pletcher's label: the best thoroughbred trainer never to have won the Kentucky Derby. Fourteen times in the past seven years Pletcher saddled horses in the Churchill Downs paddock, and 14 times he sent them back to the barn without a blanket of roses.

In between Derbys he has dominated the sport. Pletcher, 39, has won three consecutive Eclipse Awards for best trainer. In 2006 he won 100 stakes races, breaking mentor D. Wayne Lukas's record of 92, and $26.8 million in purses, obliterating his own record of $20.9 million set the previous year.

He goes to bed early, some nights before his three children (Payton, 8, Kyle, 7, and Hannah, 4), then rises at 3:45 a.m. -- "after hitting the snooze button once," says his wife, Tracy -- to supervise a far-flung operation that includes 194 high-priced, top-level horses in training, 150 employees and a roster of owners that includes some of the wealthiest men in the world. "Todd is not just a horse trainer, he's a suit," says fellow trainer and three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert. "He's running a corporation."

Consider the late afternoon and evening of Saturday, April 7, that Pletcher spent at cold, windswept Aqueduct Race Track in Queens, N.Y. In a span of 62 minutes Pletcher saw one of his horses run in the Wood Memorial and, on simulcast, watched four others compete in major graded stakes at four other racetracks across the country; an hour after that he returned to the TV monitor to see two more of his horses run at Santa Anita and Oaklawn Park. By the end Pletcher was slumped in a chair next to Tracy in the basement film room at Aqueduct, hands shoved into the pockets of his topcoat, exhausted. His horses had won more than $1.2 million in graded stakes alone. "Then," says Tracy, "we went home and ate cold pizza with the kids."

Trainer Carl Nafzger, 65, who handled 1990 Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic winner Unbridled and has Derby contender Street Sense, says, "Wayne Lukas revolutionized horse racing when he started putting so many horses on airplanes. Todd has taken that to the next level."

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