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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.
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."
To a broader audience, all of this is simply trivia until Pletcher wins a Kentucky Derby--or any other Triple Crown race. (He's also winless in one Preakness and six Belmont starts.) Pletcher is likely to send five horses--a quarter of the field--to the post at Churchill Downs on May 5: Florida Derby winner Scat Daddy, Louisiana Derby winner Circular Quay, Illinois Derby winner Cowtown Cat, Tampa Bay Derby runner-up Any Given Saturday and Santa Anita third-place finisher Sam P. As many as four of the five could be among the top 10 wagering interests in the race.
"I honestly don't think I've ever taken the best horse to the Derby," he says. "That doesn't mean I'm not frustrated that I haven't won it. This year we have our strongest chance, but face it--only one horse is going to win, and you've got to get it right on that day."
Pletcher has been Joe Montana most of the year and Jim Kelly on Derby Day, yet he does not flog himself and instead offers a healthy perspective that often leaves inquisitors exasperated at his lack of desperation. A couple of years ago another of Pletcher's fraternity brothers, Mike Cagnina, dogged him about his 0-fer at Churchill Downs and asked if it bothered him. "Yeah," said Pletcher, his voice rich with sarcasm. "I'm not sure if I can get on with my life until I win one."
Lukas, 71, who has won four Derbys, says, "It's going to happen, then he'll win four or five."