Schedule in advance, show up on time, come prepared and bring a list. That’s how we roll when Todd Pletcher agrees to take time out of his day for a visit to his barn on the Oklahoma Training Track every summer at Saratoga.
Pletcher frequently leads off the season in The Special and since he’s won the Belmont Stakes three times and runs two in this year’s revamped and shortened edition and has won 15 training titles at Belmont Park, it only made sense to schedule a virtual tour for Issue 3 of The 2020 Special (and, no, Todd, this does not get you off the hook for the Saratoga meet).
“I wish we had some breakout horses to talk about when we do it,” Pletcher deadpanned during the advance scheduling this week.
The breakout could come Saturday when Pletcher runs Farmington Road and Dr Post in the 152nd Belmont, looking to add another victory to scores in 2017 with Tapwrit, 2013 with Palace Malice and 2007 with Rags To Riches. Pletcher has won five Triple Crown races and there could be a Belmont Stakes, Kentucky Derby or Preakness Stakes winner from his stable still in the mix this year.
The stable trains and races out of four locations this spring – Belmont, Gulfstream Park, Churchill Downs and Saratoga’s Oklahoma – after an extended winter at Palm Beach Downs due to the coronavirus crisis and uncertainty over racing schedules around the country. Pletcher ranks fifth on North America’s list of leading trainers by earnings – a table he’s topped 10 times since 2004 – and figures to pick up steam with more top-tier venues online after a significantly abbreviated spring.
He made noise in one of the divisions he frequently dominates – 2-year-old males – with recent flashy victories by Prisoner at Belmont and Hyperfocus at Gulfstream for longtime patron Mike Repole. The barns are well represented in every other division, from long on the dirt to short on the grass and everything in between. Stakes runners, allowance horses, maidens and even claimers, they’re all there.
Tom Law’s virtual tour list was long and toward the end of the more than half-hour visit the only thing left to ask was if any horses were accidentally omitted.
“Hopefully you missed a bunch of good 2-year-olds,” Pletcher said. “Time will tell on that.”
Dr Post: St. Elias Stable’s Quality Road colt handled the jump from maiden ranks to stakes company with victory in the 1 1/16-mile Unbridled Stakes April 25 at Gulfstream. He ran once at 2, finishing fourth in a July 4 maiden at Belmont before a spell on the sidelines that included a stint with Bruce Jackson at Fair Hill Equine Therapy Center. After the Unbridled win, Dr Post has breezed four times at Palm Beach Downs before shipping north and turned in a half-mile work in :48.87 June 13 on Belmont’s main track. “He got a good education last time in the Unbridled. To be able to go from a 7-furlong maiden to that race, which had some decent horses in it with some graded stakes experience. He got jostled around, a bit of an eventful trip and still able to overcome it. Hopefully that pays dividends now that we’re stepping into some higher class races against more seasoned, experienced horses.”
Farmington Road: Second in the Oaklawn Stakes April 11 and fourth in a division of the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby May 2, Quality Road colt drew post 5 for the Belmont and is 15-1 on the morning line. Owned by his breeder, Chrysalis Stables, and Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Bob LaPenta, he also finished fourth in the Grade 2 Risen Star at Fair Grounds after breaking his maiden at Tampa Bay Downs Jan. 12. “His Arkansas Derby was a solid performance. The frustrating thing with him is he just doesn’t want to get involved at all in the early part of the race. The pace was honest enough at Oaklawn but the track seemed to be carrying speed and he was kind of up against it from a style standpoint trying to make up ground on that track. That was not easy. One thing I think will be interesting about this one-turn aspect of the Belmont is horses seem to consolidate a little more early on. You don’t get that spread like you do going around the first turn. That could allow him to lay a little closer on his own and hopefully preserve that finishing kick. I do feel like he’s trained the best he’s trained for us since the Arkansas Derby. I thought his breeze the other day on the training track here at Belmont was very good. He’s sitting on the type of race that should bring out his best performance. The question is can he step up to that and is that good enough?”
Baskin: Fans of the pandemic Netflix documentary hit Tiger King will no doubt follow this 2-year-old son of Into Mischief. Owned by partnership of LNJ Foxwoods, Cheyenne Stables and Grandview Equine, cost $525,000 at last year’s Fasig-Tipton Saratoga select sale. Recently moved from Palm Beach to Gulfstream, where he breezed a half in :48.48 from the gate April 12. “We got a kick out of that name. He actually got that name just when Tiger King was at its peak. Clever name by Into Mischief out of Coy Cat. LNJ, they’ve come up with some clever names. He’s been a pretty forward colt. He could make his debut toward the end of Belmont, beginning of Saratoga. Let’s hope he’s worth it.”
We have to ask, did you watch the show? “I did watch Tiger King. I was maybe a little late on the bandwagon but so many people were talking about it that finally I started watching it. Then it’s sort of like a train wreck and hard to turn away. It was entertaining anyway.”
Would it have been as big of a hit if it didn’t come out during the pandemic? “I’d have to think not . . . I did get into The Last Dance series and that was more in my wheelhouse. That era was when I was watching a lot of NBA. I remember being back in college with some buddies and watching (Michael Jordan’s) 61-point game against Cleveland, all that. I was at U of A when Steve Kerr, Jud Buechler were there, so the whole thing was kind of cool. I think Steve Kerr was a sophomore when I was a freshman.”
Prisoner: Repole’s 2-year-old Violence colt, bought this year for $175,000, broke maiden in his debut Opening Day at Belmont over highly touted Fauci. A $195,000 RNA at last year’s Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale, he’s out of the stakes-winning End Sweep mare Al Max Diner. “We were excited about his win. We purchased him in March, brought him in and as you know often times things don’t go quite that smoothly. He came out of the sale in really good condition and never missed a beat at Palm Beach. We had him slated to run at Gulfstream and right about that time the announcement came that New York was going to open so we opted for that. He’s been pretty uncomplicated, put in a good gate work before he left Palm Beach Downs and got in a bit of a speed duel with a Wesley Ward horse who apparently had been training well so I thought it was encouraging.”
Hyperfocus: Repole’s 2-year-old Constitution colt broke his maiden first out May 9 at Gulfstream, winning at 4 1/2 furlongs from off the pace. Out of the unraced Hat Trick mare Discreet Meating, he cost $100,000 as a yearling. “The distance was a tick short for him, he had to be hustled along throughout the race but seemed like once he got on track late he finished up nicely, galloped out the way you’d want one to. He’s actually at Churchill now and preparing for the Bashford Manor (June 27). That gives us, hopefully when the Saratoga stakes calendar comes out, the opportunity to split those two up, send Prisoner to Saratoga and have Hyperfocus go that way.”
Fearless: WinStar Farm’s and China Horse Club’s 4-year-old Ghostzapper gelding won Churchill optional May 30 to run record to 3-for-5. Fifth in the Grade 2 New Orleans Classic March 21 in just his third start, he breezed a half in :50.40 June 12 at Churchill. Pletcher said the Grade 2 Stephen Foster there June 27 would be next. “Another one that will be making a step up in class off a solid allowance win. The Stephen Foster looks like that’s coming up a very competitive race. He’s always shown a lot of ability and he’s run well in all of his starts. We need him to break well enough and get himself in a little better tactical position. I don’t think he can afford any mistakes against the type of field he’s going to meet there. We were kind of aggressive running in New Orleans off his allowance win. He probably ran better than it looks on paper in that race. He had a lot of traffic. It was a pretty good performance considering it was only his third start.”
Moretti: Repole’s and Eclipse Thoroughbreds’ lightly raced 4-year-old son of Medaglia d’Oro became a stakes winner in the 1 3/8-mile Flat Out June 11 at Belmont. That victory followed an allowance score May 2 at Oaklawn and two runner-up efforts in similar races at Laurel and Gulfstream to start the season. “We were always kind of thinking that could be his thing when we were ready to stretch him out. We were happy to see that mile and three-eighths opportunity. I don’t know how many more of those we’re going to see. I’m afraid some of those races are going to be cut out with all the changes. I guess we’ll see. The Suburban could be in play for him. Next best thing to a mile and three-eighths.
Could he be a legitimate stallion prospect with a win in a Grade 1 or at 10 furlongs? “That’s what we’re hoping. He’s got a stallion’s type pedigree. He’s the kind of horse we always felt would be better this year than last year, too.”
Gouverneur Morris: Part of last summer’s Stable Tour when still an unraced maiden, Team Valor International’s and WinStar’s Constitution colt has since won two of five with a second and third. Fourth in the Florida Derby and third in a division of the Arkansas Derby, he’s headed on the road for his next start. Keeneland’s Blue Grass Stakes July 11 looked like the target when the Belmont Stakes was ruled out but other races could also be under consideration. “I’m not 100 percent sure which way we’re going to end up going. It even could change again. Felt like with this race coming up the way it was and when we heard Maxfield might not go in the Blue Grass we felt like maybe that’s a better spot. We’ll see how it works out, talk to the connections. We weren’t expecting the Peter Pan to be in the position where it is (Opening Day at Saratoga, July 16). It looks like we’re starting to get some options so we’ll see how it goes.
Would a logical long-term goal be the Kentucky Derby? “We’d still like to think that is in play. We need him to make that little step forward. Similar to what I was saying about Farmington Road, I feel like he was trying to close in Arkansas and the same at Gulfstream and those can be hard places to do that. He would benefit from a true honest pace and a racetrack playing neutral.”
Sweet Melania: Another veteran of the Stable Tour, 3-year-old daughter of American Pharoah broke her maiden last summer at Saratoga before winning the Grade 2 Jessamine at Keeneland and finishing third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf at Santa Anita. She’s one of five entered in Saturday’s Grade 3 Wonder Again at 1 mile on the Widener Turf Course. “She’s doing well, kind of waiting for the right opportunity and once the Belmont stakes calendar came out we locked on this race.”
Largent: Owned by Twin Creeks Racing Stables and Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, 4-year-old by Into Mischief is 3-for-5 with two seconds. Entered in Saturday’s 11th race, a 9-furlong optional on the grass, he comes off a win March 28 at Gulfstream. “He’s been a very consistent horse. When things sort of were up in the air we decided to put him on ice for a while, freshen him up a touch. He’s Virginia-bred so by racing in this area he’s in for some bonuses and who knows, maybe we’ll even take a look at one of those Virginia-bred stakes or something.
Named for Steve Largent? “We might be the only two that know that. Jim Zorn to Steve Largent. Some of these people don’t even remember the NFL without Seattle and Tampa Bay.”
Halladay: Keeping with the sports theme, Harrell Ventures’ 4-year-old War Front colt won the Sunshine Forever May 9 at Gulfstream for his second straight win. He won the Tropical Park Derby to end 3-year-old season and finished fourth in the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Stakes to start 2020. He’s 5-for-12 with $288,485 earned. “He really had a great winter and spring and blossomed. You can see him literally physically develop this year and fill out into himself. You can see his confidence level in his races and his training is getting better and better, higher and higher throughout the season. Right now we’re leaning toward going to the Maker’s Mark Mile (July 10 at Keeneland), take a shot there and go for the Grade 1. It seems like now he’s starting to settle a little bit, he’s able stretch out some more. We can focus on mile-type races for him the remainder of the year.”
Sombeyay: Starlight Racing’s Into Mischief colt first appeared in the Stable Tour on Opening Day at Saratoga in 2018, the day before he won the Grade 3 Sanford Stakes. After the Sanford Pletcher said “He’s just one of those horses who is actually entertaining to watch the hotwalker walk him. He just constantly badgers him, you know? He’s a playful colt, and at times not completely focused.” Almost two years later that part hasn’t changed, he’s still tough to his handlers but a productive turf horse with a win in the Grade 3 Canadian Turf in February and two other graded-stakes placings. He’s won three of 13 and earned $361,890. “He has his moments. He has some A-D-D at times. He’s put in some good performances and is kind of a cool horse to have in the barn. Like I told you after one of his races at Saratoga he’s like a hotwalker’s nightmare. Never gives up.”
Summer To Remember: How can we not include a horse with that name? Surely 2020 will fit that bill. Third in English Channel Stakes at Gulfstream last time out, Waterford Stable’s Summer Front colt is entered in Saturday’s $100,000 Audubon Stakes on the turf at Churchill. “The reason we chose that is we feel a mile and an eighth is what he’s looking for. That was the only spot out there to give him that opportunity. We’re hoping that’s what he’s been looking for.”
Cousteau: WinStar Farm homebred 2-year-old Into Mischief colt finished fifth in his debut Friday at Churchill Friday. “The WinStar team was pleased with the way he was training before they sent him to us. We’ve found him to be very straightforward, professional, got his mind on business right from the start, so we’re looking forward to his debut. He looks like the type that can show some early speed and be effective in 2-year-old races.”
They had to dig deep and go back for that name, after Jacques Cousteau? “That’s right. I said that to my assistant at Churchill, Amelia Green, who is much younger than we are, said something about Jacques Cousteau the other day and she absolutely had no idea what I was talking about. He was sort of like the guy who was killed by the stingray or whatever (Steve Irwin). He would hunt alligators, wrestle with alligators. He died a few years ago and I guess Jacques Cousteau was kind of the pioneer of guys like that.”
Graceful Princess: Owner and breeder Mandy Pope moved the now 4-year-old daughter of Tapit out of Horse of the Year Havre de Grace to Pletcher’s barn last year. A maiden winner in her debut at Saratoga Sept. 2, 2018 for Ralph Nicks, she ran without success five times in 2019. She won in her first start for Pletcher April 24 at Gulfstream, taking a 1 1/16-mile optional by 6 1/2 lengths. “Very nice filly. Very pleased with her, made her debut for our stable. She’s a classy filly, world-class pedigree and gives you the impression that she too, like I was saying about Halladay, is one that the more she matures the better she gets.”
Channel Cat: Calumet Farm’s homebred 5-year-old by English Channel won last year’s Grade 2 Bowling Green at Saratoga and inched close to the seven-figure mark in earnings this winter before going to the sidelines. Fourth in Grade 2 Pan American March 28, he also finished 10th in the Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational Jan. 25. “He’s at Calumet right now. He had a little setback so he’s getting a vacation. We hope to have him back maybe September.”
Portos: Gerard and Alain Wertheimer’s homebred 3-year-old Tapit colt flashed classics potential with a third in Grade 3 Withers Feb. 1 at Aqueduct before a 14th in Grade 2 Louisiana Derby and a fifth in a Churchill allowance May 28. Worked half in :49.60 June 12 at Churchill. “Very frustrating horse. He’s teased us in some of his races, some of his breezes. He’s got a bit of a tendency not to get away well and getting involved in his races, then he’s compromised because he doesn’t like the kickback and those sort of things. We’re hoping that eventually it will all come together. I thought going into the winter he could be our Belmont horse, assuming at that time they were having a true Belmont, a traditional Belmont. Then he got off track. We’re not giving up but we have some ability from him at times. I don’t have any specific race picked out for him at the moment.”
Unrighteous: Calumet homebred finished seventh as a maiden in the Tampa Bay Derby March 7. After a fourth in the maiden ranks April 25 at Oaklawn he graduated with 4-length score on off-the-turf 1 1/16-mile maiden at Gulfstream. He breezed a half in :49.78 on the Oklahoma last Saturday. “He too is a horse that has shown some promise. His last race was good, got fortunate it came off the turf and his experience towered over the field. He’s also one that we feel has more talent than we’ve seen. He’s put in some works that shows he’s capable of bigger and better things as the season goes on. I was talking to Eddie Kane today and the Calumet team would like to keep an eye on the Ohio Derby. We’ll keep that penciled in at the moment.”
King For A Day: Red Oak Stable’s homebred Uncle Mo colt beat Maximum Security in last year’s Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth before a fifth there in the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational. Second in his comeback in the Grade 3 Challenger March 7 at Tampa, he’s back on the sidelines. “He ran great and had a little bit of a setback. With everything going on at the time he went back to Red Oak Farm. Those guys are freshening him up, hopefully get him back this summer and have some fun with him. He’s a very talented horse.”