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."
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.
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