Life In The Winners Circle

After several decades, the photo is slightly faded, but the image remains sharp. A young boy is leading a chestnut horse, his attention clearly on the horse and not the photographer. Beneath a shock of sandy hair, the earnest expression and studied concentration on his face is unmistakable. The boy is barely 13 and the horse hasn’t yet won a race, but he will. And those early races will catapult the boy into a career that makes him a household name in the world of Thoroughbred racing.

Anyone who knew Todd Pletcher well growing up knew what he wanted to be someday. And when he entered Churchill Downs’ winner’s circle on a rain-drenched day this past May, much of Ocala was cheering him on, thanks to his Marion County connections. Joining their son in a jubilant Kentucky Derby celebration were his mother, Jerrie Pletcher, father, J.J. Pletcher, and step-mother, Joan Pletcher.

Leading up to the 2010 Kentucky Derby, media attention focused on Todd Pletcher’s past record of 24 starters but never a win in the country’s most well-known race. He says all the fuss didn’t bother him as much as people assumed.

“I didn’t feel it was a reflection on our ability to train horses,” says Todd. “I don’t feel I’m a better trainer now that I’ve won the Derby or that I did a better job with ‘Super Saver.’ It was just a matter of having everything unfold the right way. We had a horse that liked the wet track. We got a brilliant ride. Those are factors that sometimes, as a trainer, you can’t control.”

Super Saver wasn’t expected to be the star of the five horses the trainer planned to enter in this year’s Derby. Everyone assumed that role would fall to “Eskendereya,” a powerhouse of a colt who’d already won three prominent races leading up to the Run for the Roses. But when a leg injury kept Eskendereya out of the race, the Derby lost its predicted heavy favorite.

“It was a disappointment to lose him. We felt he had a huge chance to win,” says Todd, “but we still felt confident we had four horses coming up to the race really well.”

The 43-year-old says the win was one of the most fulfilling because his parents were there to share it, but this year’s Kentucky Derby was not his first victory in a Triple Crown race. That came during the 2007 Belmont Stakes when he sent out “Rags To Riches” to capture a gutsy win over eventual Horse of the Year, Curlin. Rags To Riches became the first filly to win the grueling one-and-a-half-mile “test of champions” since 1905, and Todd counts the race among his most incredible memories.

“A father is prejudiced, but I always thought he’d be good at whatever he did,” says J.J. Pletcher, who moved to Ocala in 1985. “Todd was reading the Daily Racing Form when he was in second grade and picking winners even then.”

Todd Pletcher (l) and his father, J.J., watch the horses at the track.

Todd literally grew up at the racetrack, thanks to his father’s career as a trainer of Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds across the Southwest. He was just seven years old when he started “walking hots” for his dad at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico.

“When he was working with J.J., he was like a sponge soaking up every-thing,” notes Joan Pletcher of the stepson she’s known and loved since 1980. “Even as a boy, Todd never had a messy room. He was very organized 
and disciplined.”

Todd became the owner of his first racehorse, the chestnut in the faded photograph, just before he turned 13.

“We were at a sale in Raton, New Mexico, and a trainer who’d had too much to drink bought a horse for $800,” J.J. remembers. “His wife didn’t want the horse, so she came by our barn and told Todd she wanted to get rid of him.”

The trainer agreed to give away the colt and Todd begged his father to let him have the horse. J.J. encouraged him to go inspect the animal first. The horse was quite small, but nicely put together, so J.J. relented and the unassuming little chestnut named Rambunctiously moved into the Pletcher barn.

“The first time we ran him at Oaklawn, he won,” recalls J.J. “The next time he ran in a claiming race and he won, but he was also claimed.” (Every horse in a claiming race can be claimed if another trainer is willing to put up the claim fee, so owners know their horses are at risk of changing hands when they enter the race.)

That is probably the only winner’s circle photo ever taken of Todd Pletcher in which he looks decidedly unhappy. He’d won the race but lost his horse. His father made him bank the $36,000 Rambunctiously earned in that race.

“Rambunctiously paid for my first car and some of my college,” says Todd, adding that this first-win photo still hangs in his house.

Todd (r) supervises the workout of one of his horses.

If it had been up to Todd,he would have never ventured off the racetrack, but his father said college was mandatory. Todd attended the University of Arizona—no doubt enticed by the school’s racetrack management program—and graduated in 1989 with a degree in Animal Science.

Although Todd credits his father with his introduction to racing and for teaching him the fundamentals, he is grateful that J.J. also encouraged him to work under other good horsemen.

“My dad was smart enough to tell me I needed to work for some other people,” he says. “Those were great experiences and I got to see different approaches to training horses. It also gave me a foundation to go to work for Wayne when I graduated college.”

After working for one of racing’s biggest names, Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, for seven years, Todd knew it was time to train on his own. He wasn’t sure what to expect, but he was ready for the challenge.

“It was very intimidating to leave. When I went out on my own, Wayne’s barn was loaded with world-class horses and champion after champion,” Todd recalls. “I left the most powerful stable in the world and started out with seven horses. None of them had ever won a maiden race. My seven years with Wayne were formative in how I train horses, conduct my business, and operate my stable.”

Todd took out his trainer’s license in December 1995. Barely two months later, he saddled his first winner. In 1998, he was the leading trainer of stakes winners in New York and earned the first of many Leading Trainer titles that same year at prestigious Saratoga. From 1998 through mid-2010, he’s earned 31 Leading Trainer titles at six different racetracks. From 2004 through 2007, he led all American trainers in purse earnings and won four consecutive Eclipse Awards as National Champion Trainer.

The momentum continues. In 2009, Pletcher-trained horses bankrolled $15,454,429, making him second among American trainers. 2010 has already been a banner year. Through August 25, his trainees have already earned over $15.4 million this year. His horses have been in the money a remarkable 57.9% of the time, with 27.3% of those victories, putting Pletcher at the top of the leading trainer ranks. On most weekends, he is represented by stakes winners at tracks across North America, making it risky to bet against Pletcher horses in their classic white bridles.

While some trainers like to banter with the press and others are known for their brash statements, Todd Pletcher is the consummate gentleman, gracious even under pressure. He always appears calm and collected, taking everything in stride, no doubt something he learned from his father whose even temperament and ability to stay level-headed made an impression on Todd at an early age.

To the millions of viewers who just tune in to watch the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup, horseracing appears to be a glamorous sport. They see trainers accepting a trophy wearing an expensive suit and tie. What they don’t see is the number of long hours that make those winner’s circle photos a reality.

“People don’t know how demanding of a lifestyle it is. It’s seven days a week,” says Todd. “My staff and I are often at the barn from 4:30am until 7pm. The hard work takes place behind the scenes.”

Try keeping those hours and being a husband and father as well.

“It’s not hard; it’s impossible,” Todd admits. “Saturday and Sunday are typically our biggest racing days, so that makes it difficult when your kids are in baseball and you’re trying to juggle those things. My wife shuttles the kids to games 
and practices.”

Todd and his wife, Tracy, the woman he married after they graduated high school in Texas, have three children—Payton, 11; Kyle, 10; and Hannah, 7. The Pletcher kids know what their father does for a living, but the true scope of his career finally hit home after the Kentucky Derby win.

“They were very excited in the winner’s circle, but I think it had more of an impact on them on Monday when they went back to school and their friends had seen them on TV,” says Todd. “They had a celebration for Hannah at her school. I think they realized then how big of a deal it was.”

While racing takes the Pletchers all over the country, Ocala is a frequent destination for the family. Christmas is always spent with J.J. and Joan at their Payton Training Center in town, fondly named after Todd and Tracy’s oldest son.

“It’s a great place,” says Todd. “It’s good to get away from the hustle and bustle of the racetrack.”

“When they’re in Florida for the winter, they’re only a few hours away so we see them quite often,” says Joan. “They love spending time here and we all get together for Christmas, including Todd’s mother, Jerrie, who lives in San Antonio.”

Looking back, J.J. always knew his son’s passion would involve horses, and Todd has been able to channel that passion into an extraordinary career.

“This is something I love, even though it’s long hours and a demanding lifestyle,” Todd says. “I don’t think there’s a substitute for hard work and applying yourself.”

Todd Pletcher
By The Numbers

259 stakes winners trained

200 horses in Pletcher’s racing stable

32 Leading Trainer titles earned at 6 different racetracks (1998-2010)

28 horses entered in Kentucky Derby

26 state champions trained

8 national champions trained

6 assistant trainers who work for him

4 Eclipse Awards earned as Champion Trainer (2004–2007)

1 Kentucky Derby winner trained 
(Super Saver, 2010)

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