By Ed McNamara
His uncanny touch with 2-year-olds launched a career that will put him in the Hall of Fame. More than 20 years ago, Todd Pletcher began churning out an assembly line of brilliant juveniles that helped make him the perennial king of Saratoga and a seven-time Eclipse Award winner.
For 11 years since he left D. Wayne Lukas to go out on his own, the only hole in Pletcher’s resume was his Triple Crown zero. His breakthrough came in 2007 with Rags to Riches, the first filly to win the Belmont in 102 years. The usually stoic Pletcher punched the air and high-fived after she held off Curlin, an eventual two-time Horse of the Year, by a head.
“You can go a hundred years and not see Todd Pletcher show the emotion he just showed,” ESPN analyst Randy Moss said.
Finally, he had mastered the spectrum, from 5-furlong baby race to marathon, and Pletcher, 52, has been a force in the classics ever since. Racing’s all-time earnings leader got off the Kentucky Derby schneid with Super Saver in 20
10 and repeated in 2017 with Always Dreaming. He’s done his best work in the Belmont, adding trophies with Palace Malice in 2013 and Tapwrit four years later. With any luck, he’d have five of them, but he lost by a head with Commissioner in 2014 and by a nose with Destin in 2016. Both led until the final strides.
Pletcher’s Belmont template: Bring in a fresh horse with stamina who hasn’t peaked. All his winners had been off for five weeks. Rags to Riches had dominated the Kentucky Oaks. Palace Malice (12th) and Tapwrit (sixth) had been far back in the Derby.
So just when you have the puzzle figured out, along comes the COVID-19 pandemic and a scrambled Triple Crown. Only the location of Saturday’s 152nd Belmont is the same. Some firsts: It leads off the series, 49 days after the first Saturday in May; the distance is 1 1/8 miles, not 1½, and around one turn, with no spectators. The “Test of the Champion?” More like Classic New Abnormal.
“I don’t think there’s any question that after the end of 2020 you can put a big asterisk on the whole year,” Pletcher said this week during a national conference call with media. “The Triple Crown is not going to be the same being spread out over a longer time frame at different distances and in a different order.
“I don’t think it would take away from a horse that won any or all of the races, but it’s definitely not the same as trying to do it in five weeks at three different distances.”
None of Pletcher’s Belmont champions was the betting favorite, and he’ll saddle two outsiders in Saturday’s field of 10. Deep closer Farmington Road (15-1, post No. 5) and the inexperienced but promising Dr Post (5-1, post No. 9) will challenge Florida Derby winner Tiz the Law, who became the heavy favorite (6-5 on the morning-line) because of injuries to the undefeated trio of Nadal, Charlatan and Maxfield.
As for the relatively small field, Pletcher is “a little bit surprised. There were a lot of defections recently that contributed to that. My original thought was that it might be oversubscribed.”
With the three other stars sidelined, it becomes Tiz the Law’s race to lose, and he’ll be tough to beat. He’s a bad trip from being 5-for-5, won a Grade 1 stakes at Belmont and is training brilliantly. His tactical speed and finishing punch make him the total package.
For Pletcher’s horses to contend, they will have to make serious forward moves. Both were sired by Quality Road, whom Pletcher also trained. Dr Post makes only his fourth start and has more upside. On March 29 at Gulfstream he broke his maiden at 7 furlongs in his second career start. Dr Post turned heads in his next race, when he overcame all kinds of trouble to take an ungraded stakes by 1½ lengths. Irad Ortiz Jr., the country’s hottest rider, retains the mount.
“He got boxed in and ate a lot of dirt but still was able to win impressively,” Pletcher said. “He got a lot of education there. He lacks a little experience in terms of number of races, but he’s progressed greatly since the beginning of the year. He reminds me of Quality Road because he’s a big, scopey colt who looks like he can run all day.”
Pletcher said the 1-for-6 Farmington Road probably would be better off if the Belmont were being run at 1½ miles. He has plenty of stamina but comes from so far back that he is left with far too much to do in the stretch. He was fourth in both graded-stakes tries, beaten a total of 11½ lengths, and seems up against it.
“He would certainly appreciate a fast pace and a fair, unbiased track that plays to closers,” Pletcher said. “On paper, it looks like there’ll be a solid pace.”
The Belmont is weirdly positioned as a steppingstone to the Derby, scheduled for Sept. 5. Pletcher, like every other trainer, isn’t sure where to run next.
“The bigger question is what you do between the Belmont and the Derby,” Pletcher said. “Right now we don’t know.”
There’s the Blue Grass at Keeneland on July 11, and the Haskell at Monmouth Park a week later. Jack Knowlton, Tiz the Law’s lead owner, said he expects the Travers will be Aug. 8, but no official announcement has been made.
No matter how he does in this year’s classics, Pletcher wants to return to the familiar path next spring.
“I appreciate the tradition of the Triple Crown series,” he said. “That’s what makes it so difficult. I would hope it goes back to its traditional order and timing next year. I think it’s a very honored tradition and I’d like to see it stay that way.”
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.