By Ed McNamara
J.J. Pletcher is 83, and his hair has been gray for a long time. It’s safe to say that worrying about his only child didn’t cause it. On Friday, this career horseman will savor a father’s ultimate moment when he sees trainer Todd Pletcher inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York.
“I’m the proudest man here,” J.J. told usracing.com Monday in a phone interview from Saratoga. “It’s a big deal. It’s a tremendous accomplishment that you know you had something to do with, but you know 99% of it was by Todd. I helped him and he helped me, but he’s his own man and he did all the work. I can’t take any credit for it.”
Oh, but he should. Dad is being too modest. From the time Todd got his first hands-on experience with horses, J.J. was there to guide him.
“Todd’s been doing this since he was 5,” J.J. told me 20 years ago. “Except during school, he was with my horses all the time. He didn’t spend much time at the beach.”
In the summer of 1975, 8-year-old Todd became his father’s hot walker at Ruidoso Downs, then and now the No. 1 track for quarter horses.
“In New Mexico kids were allowed to walk hots, and Todd was a good hot walker by then,” J.J. said. “He was a natural. He liked the track. He liked everything about it.”
When Todd was 11, his mother, Jerrie, asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up. When he said, “train horses,” she said that would be “wonderful.”
“Training is all I ever wanted to do,” Todd said. “With her endorsement, from that point on, I never thought of doing anything else.”
After his parents divorced when he was 13, he lived with Jerrie in San Antonio, where he went to high school. He spent summers at tracks in the Midwest and Southwest with his father, who taught him about conformation and what a good horse should look like. J.J. gave Todd the detailed horse course he’d lacked as a teenager, when he picked up the basics from an uncle who roped calves in the Texas panhandle. J.J. got his “OJT” (on-the-job training) at quarter horse meets scattered around the Lone Star State.
Surprisingly, young Todd wasn’t enthusiastic about attending the Keeneland yearling sales, where racing’s elite meet and spend megabucks on expensive pedigrees.
“I made him go there with me, and sometimes he’d gripe about it when he was a teenager,” J.J. said. “I told him it was a great place to learn about horses, and that I went to college at Keeneland. He came around and made a good impression on people. He was a very likeable person as a young guy.”
Following graduation in 1989 from the University of Arizona, Todd spent 6 1/2 years as an assistant to his second mentor, D. Wayne Lukas, who calls him “my adopted son.” Late in 1995, with the prodding and encouragement of his father, Pletcher left the security of what was America’s most successful stable to fly solo.
“After Jeff (Wayne’s son) got hurt, Todd ran Wayne’s Eastern division as well as anybody could,” J.J. said. “He had a lot of success there, but I kept after him to go out on his own. I told him you have to get young horses and keep bringing them in. He started with seven horses, and four of them were mine. But in a couple of months, he started picking up horses.”
Pletcher first made his mark with 2-year-old sprinters, then gradually mastered the spectrum from 5-furlong baby races to the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes. He excels on dirt and turf, with front-runners, stalkers and closers, and off long layoffs.
“The consistency is awesome,” said owner Mike Repole, a longtime client of Pletcher’s. “He’s strong across the board, which is rare even among the best trainers.”
Repole pointed out that Bob Baffert rarely wins on grass, that Chad Brown hasn’t been a major player in main-track stakes, and that Brad Cox has been a force for only a few years.
“I think Todd may even be a little underrated,” Repole said. “In baseball, he’d be a five-tool player, and in basketball he’d be a guy who can play every position. He’s the best.”
Pletcher’s achievements fill three pages of the New York Racing Association’s media guide. Among the highlights: record for earnings (more than $410 million); five Triple Crown race trophies — two in the Kentucky Derby, three in the Belmont; four Kentucky Oaks wins; 11 Breeders’ Cup trophies; seven Eclipse Awards as leading trainer and 11 for divisional champions.
“He’s done rather well,” J.J. said, which is the understatement of the century.
He’s still doing well. According to Equibase, Pletcher has 23 stakes wins this year and is third nationally in earnings. Besides Grade 1 winners Malathaat, Colonel Liam and Known Agenda, he has two rising stars, the unbeaten 2-year-old Wit and the 3-year-old Dynamic One, a serious Travers contender after an impressive win last weekend in Saratoga’s Curlin Stakes.
Wit and Dynamic One are co-owned by Repole, for whom Pletcher campaigned Uncle Mo, the 2010 2-year-old juvenile champ and a world-class sire, and 2019 champion older male Vino Rosso, who dominated the Breeders’ Cup Classic. They also collaborated on multiple stakes-winners Stay Thirsty, Overanalyze, Stopchargingmaria, Always Shopping, Unlimited Budget and Caixa Eletronica.
Repole felt honored by Todd’s request to introduce him at the Hall of Fame ceremony.
“To be part of his ride for 13, 14 years has been very special,” Repole said. “We’re really part of each other’s family. We’ve had some amazing wins and some adversity, professionally and personally, and it’s created a great bond between us. I’m so happy for Todd, his wife, Tracy, their three kids and J.J., who’s a legend.”
Keeping track of approximately 200 horses — 119 at Saratoga and about 40 apiece at Belmont Park and Monmouth Park — is no problem for Todd. Ask about a particular horse and he’ll instantly tick off details about its last race, latest workout and next objective. “He has the memory of an elephant,” J.J. said. “He’s a lot smarter than me.”
That may be, but total recall doesn’t help prepare a horse for a racing career. That’s what J.J. has been doing since 1999 at his Payton Training Center in Ocala, Florida. He’s broken many of Todd’s horses, including grass champion English Channel, More Than Ready, and Left Bank. English Channel and More Than Ready are among the many Pletcher stars who became top sires, along with Scat Daddy, Speightstown and Constitution.
“Todd probably has as many stallion shares as any trainer,” said J.J., a world-class sire himself.
To qualify for the Hall of Fame, a trainer must have 25 years’ experience on his own, which is why Pletcher had to wait until this year.
“I don’t know about that eligibility rule, because Todd had the stats to get in after 10 years,” Repole said. “And he’s only 53, so if he trains until he’s 70, imagine the records he’ll have. He’ll end up the greatest trainer of all time.”
The Todd Pletcher File
Married: wife, Tracy; children, Payton, Kyle, Hannah
Home: Garden City, New York
Hall of Fame: 2021
First winner: Majestic Number, Jan. 26, 1996, Gulfstream
Career wins: 5,155
Earnings: $409,890,881 (record)
Kentucky Derby victories: 2 (Super Saver, 2010; Always Dreaming, 2017)
Belmont Stakes victories: 3 (Rags to Riches, 2007; Palace Malice, 2013; Tapwrit, 2017)
Kentucky Oaks victories: 4
Breeders’ Cup victories: 11
Eclipse Awards, trainer: 7 (2004-07, 2010, 2013, 2014)
Divisional champions: 11
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.