By Mike Farrell
Todd Pletcher is hotter than a firecracker as he blazes through the graded stakes at Gulfstream Park’s championship meet.
Pletcher leads all trainers at the meet with over $4 million in earnings, more than doubling runner up Saffie Joseph, Jr. whose horses have banked a very respectable $1.7 million.
The disparity is even greater when you focus on graded earnings. Pletcher’s graded runners have taken home $2.9 million, leaving Brad Cox, second on the list, trailing far behind with $768,510. Pletcher is bagging the big prizes in bunches.
It’s not fair to call it a revival, as Pletcher never fell off the radar screen. In the past year, Pletcher was eclipsed by Cox with his dynamic duo of Knicks Go and Essential Quality. Steve Asmussen grabbed the Saratoga headlines by becoming racing’s all-time winningest trainer.
Right now, it’s all Todd: front and center. He bagged three graded stakes on Pegasus Day, including the $3 million World Cup (G1) Invitational with Life Is Good and the $1 million World Cup Turf with Colonel Liam.
Last Saturday, Pletcher took home two more graded trophies as Grand Sonata edged Royal Spirit, giving him a 1-2 finish in the Kitten’s Joy (G3) and My Prankster took the Swale (G3) for 3-year-old sprinters.
With a different scenario and setup, Pletcher could have completed another graded hat trick in the $250,000 Holy Bull (G3).
Saffie Joseph, Jr. in the Derby hunt
Which brings us to our weekly discussion of the 3-year-olds on their way to the Triple Crown. The Holy Bull, the Withers at Aqueduct and the Bob Lewis at Santa Anita were last weekend’s trio of Grade 3 stakes each offering the winner 10 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby.
White Abarrio was the decisive winner of the Holy Bull by 4 ½ lengths, giving Joseph a chip to play in the Triple Crown chase. And he’s dreaming big.
“We talked it out over dinner Saturday night, and I’d say it’s not set in stone, but he’s going straight to the Florida Derby (G1). We don’t have to decide now, but everyone was kind of on the same page to go straight to the Florida Derby,” Joseph said. “The spacing works well. He runs well fresh, and hopefully, it will set him up for the Kentucky Derby (G1) to run his best.”
From this corner, the son of Race Day still has a lot to prove before shipping to Louisville. The Holy Bull was his first stakes win, and he still hasn’t run longer than 1 1/16 miles.
Mo Donegal is one to watch
The story within the Holy Bull story was Pletcher’s Mo Donegal, the 17-10 favorite making his first start since winning the Remsen (G2) at Aqueduct in early December. He was cutting back in distance, running half a furlong less than he did in the Remsen. And it showed.
Mo Donegal was slow to get into the game, lagging along until Irad Ortiz, Jr. finally showed him open racetrack in the stretch. He responded like a freight train, storming home fastest of all, almost wresting the place spot from Simplification. The longer the race, the better for the son of Uncle Mo. That bodes well for his prospects down the road.
“I thought he finished really well, it just took him a little while to get out in the clear and get going,” Pletcher said. “The last hundred yards he was making up a lot of ground. He just kind of ran out real estate at the end. I was happy with the way he closed.”
Early Voting takes Withers
Meanwhile, up north at chilly and muddy Aqueduct, Early Voting improved to 2-for-2 with a front-running score in the 1 1/8 miles Withers, equaling White Abarrio’s winning margin of 4 1/2 lengths. He is an interesting fresh prospect for trainer Chad Brown. The competition wasn’t the toughest in the Withers, a statement not to be taken as a knock. You never put limits on a horse’s upside potential until he or she suffers the first loss. As long as he keeps winning, Early Voting remains a Triple Crown factor.
Messier runs, scores by 15 lengths
And then there was the Bob Lewis Stakes on Sunday where Messier was an absurdly easy 15-length winner as the 3-5 favorite in a five-horse field.
Here we go again. Messier is yet another talented 3-year-old in the Bob Baffert barn who might have nowhere to run on the first Saturday in May.
Baffert-trained horses are not eligible to accrue Derby qualifying points because of the trainer’s two-year ban by Churchill Downs for past medication infractions. The road to this Triple Crown just gets curiouser and curiouser with these Baffert horses.
Sam F. Davis up this weekend
Moving ahead, this week’s Triple Crown prep action shifts to Tampa Bay Downs for the $250,000 Sam F. Davis (G3) and to Golden
Gate Fields for the El Camino Real Derby over an all-weather surface. Both stakes dangle 10 Derby qualifying points for the winners.
Probables for the Davis include Make It Big, 3-for-3 as a 2-year-old for trainer Saffie Joseph, Jr. including the Remington Springboard Mile.
Hall of Fame trainer Mark Casse is expected to enter both Golden Glider and Volcanic. Golden Glider won an allowance race on Jan. 7 at Tampa Bay Downs to improve to 2-for-2, while Volcanic broke his maiden the next day going a mile at Gulfstream Park.
At Golden Gate, Boise, the winner of the Gold Rush Stakes in December along with third-place finisher Dr Pescado are both nominated to the El Camino Real.
Mike Farrell has worked in thoroughbred and harness racing for much of his career in journalism. Mike is a turf writer, harness writer, and handicapper, covering and analyzing races at dozens of racetracks around the country. Based on the East Coast, Mike has covered the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup for a number of publications, including Daily Racing Form, as well as The Associated Press. He spends time at Gulfstream Park taking in the races, and also hits the harness racing circuit in the Northeast region. He’s been a fixture at The Hambletonian and the Haskell Invitational for longer than he’d like to remember.