‘He’s either Michael Jordan or LeBron James’ – Todd Pletcher closes in on 5,000 career wins

Horse Racing Todd Pletcher trainer
Todd Pletcher: set to become eighth trainer in North America to reach 5,000 career wins. Photo: Gulfstream Park

By Ryan Martin/NYRA

USA: Todd Pletcher can claim a body of work on par with the sport’s all-time greats as he approaches career win No. 5,000.

With six runners entered for Thursday’s cards, the seven-time Eclipse Award-winning 53-year-old has 4,991 career wins in North America, where he has operated at the highest level for 25 years. Only seven trainers have reached the landmark before him.

Since notching his first win in 1996, Pletcher has saddled winners of five American Classics and 11 Breeders’ Cup races among a total of 161 G1 wins.

‘Each and every win is special’

In reflecting on the wins that resonate the most, Pletcher said the ones that stand out aren’t necessarily the most obvious guesses, such as his two Kentucky Derby victories (Super Saver in 2010 and Always Dreaming in 2017) or his Breeders’ Cup haul.

“I’ve found that when you reach these milestone victories, it gives you an appreciation for just how special each and every win is,” he says. 

“There are certainly career highlights that might be G1 races or Classics, but sometimes as a trainer you get just as much enjoyment out of having a first-timer prepared properly to win on debut, or maybe a horse that has been a challenge and you get them there to a spot to win a race.

“I think it gives you an opportunity to appreciate the body of work and also each and every owner, each and every horse and all the staff behind you along the way.

“We’ve always tried to do the very best we can with every horse we have the opportunity to train. If that turns out to be a win in a maiden claiming race or a Classic win, if we brought the very best out of that horse’s ability then we’ve done our job.”

Among his more exalted victories, Pletcher singles out the Belmont Stakes triumph of Rags To Riches in 2007 when she became only the third filly to win the New York Classic after an epic battle with Curlin.

Rollercoaster of emotions in historic Belmont

“At that point in our stable’s development, that was the first Classic win,” he recalls. “To come about in such a historic way – with her being the first filly to win in over 100 years – and the rollercoaster of emotions during the race with the stumble … you thought you had no chance to putting a head in front and thinking you did have a chance and then Curlin fighting back in a stretch-long duel.

“A lot goes through your mind in two and a half minutes,” he adds. “It was a broad range of emotions. The first Kentucky Derby is way up there and I got a lot of enjoyment from the Belmont win by Palace Malice, which was our first Classic win for Dogwood Stable and Mr [Cot] Campbell, who was a big supporter from the beginning.”

Trainers: All-time career victories in North America
  1. Dale Baird 9,445
  2. Steve Asmussen* 9,050
  3. Jerry Hollendorfer* 7,670
  4. Jack Van Berg 6,523
  5. King Leatherbury* 6,504
  6. Scott Lake* 6,131
  7. Bill Mott* 5,048
  8. Todd Pletcher* 4,991
  9. D Wayne Lukas* 4,840
  10. Richard Hazelton 4,745

*still active; statistics courtesy of Equibase, correct at end of racing October 21

John Velazquez has won more than 6,000 races in his illustrious career, with more than 1,800 coming aboard Pletcher-trained horses, including the Kentucky Derby with Always Dreaming and that famous Belmont with Rags To Riches and t.

“It was an incredible race, especially for a horse to do what she did that day,” the jockey says. “It was equally special for the both of us, since it was a first win in a Triple Crown race for not just him but for me, as well. After this long, I still ride for him. I’m still a part of the team and I’m very grateful for that.”

Pletcher’s win output has produced a metronome-like consistency, achieving approximately 1,000 victories each four-year stretch, starting with his 1,000th career win in 2004. He has since achieved a new milestone quadrennially, with his 4,000th career victory coming on March 18, 2016 with first-time starter Eagle Scout at Gulfstream Park.

“The one thing we take pride in is that we’ve been very consistent, and we’ve been able to operate at a high level for a while,” the trainer adds. 

‘You’re only as good as the horses you’re traning’

“You never take anything for granted in this business, and certainly couldn’t do it without a lot of great owners that have supported us for a number of years. You’re only as good as the horses you’re training.”

Pletcher, who has campaigned a total of 11 Eclipse Award-winning champions, said no matter how many good horses a trainer has, there will always be more losses than there are wins.

“This business will keep you grounded,” he says. “No matter how well you’re doing, you’re still going to have challenges and the losses are going to accumulate much faster than the wins.

“I think the one thing you try to do is not get too high off the wins – and even more difficult sometimes is not to get too low off the losses. You have to try and come in and do the job consistently to the best of your abilities and hopefully, it falls into place from there.”

Mike Repole, who owned champion two-year-old Uncle Mo, praises Pletcher for his talent in training horses able to compete at the top of multiple divisions. The trainer has conditioned horses to Eclipse Award wins in six different divisions, including three Champion Older Males like 2019 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Vino Rosso, who Repole also owned.

“He does it in every category,” Repole says. “Dirt, turf, colts, fillies, there’s no one better than Todd. He’s successful in all divisions. When you look at the overall business, Todd knows it in and out.

“As an entrepreneur, I respect people who have a strong work ethic and think outside of the box. Todd may have the title ‘trainer’, but no matter what he decided to do in life, he would be successful at it. He has the business mindset and sees things differently.”

‘We’ve had an amazing run together’

Repole says Pletcher is more than a business partner; he’s a member of the family.

“When I first entered the game with a couple of horses, it was strictly a trainer-client relationship,” says the owner. “Since then, it’s gone from trainer-client, to partner, to friendship, to family.

“We’ve had an amazing run together and it’s been fun. We had Uncle Mo become a champion in 2010 and almost 10 years later Vino Rosso wins the Classic.

“He’s the best. He’s either Michael Jordan or LeBron James.”

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