Todd Pletcher and old-school training have never exactly been synonymous. Pletcher is known for being a conservative trainer, preferring long periods of time between races. Pletcher has been known to run impressive maiden winners right back in graded stakes, even in grade 1s, and not using their allowance conditions. Since 2007, Pletcher has not run any of his Kentucky Derby starters back in the Preakness, except on the two occasions when winning the roses forced his hand. Since 2010, he has run 20 horses in the Derby and the victorious Always Dreaming will be the first to run back in Baltimore.
All trainers used to have a single barn of 40 horses and that was it, while Pletcher each year commands an army of hundreds of horses. So it is safe to say that Pletcher can be called a modern-day trainer and bears little or no resemblance to the old school trainers of the past.
So, with an m.o. such as this, is Pletcher actually exhibiting some of the traits of those old school trainers in his handling of Always Dreaming?
When Always Dreaming broke his maiden with a scintillating 11-length romp at Tampa Bay Downs, most everyone was of the opinion he would wheel him right back in the grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes, especially since the only horse he had for that race was a grass horse, Made You Look, who had never run on dirt in six career starts.
But in this case, Pletcher actually ignored the lure of a possible graded stakes victory and rapid ascent up the Kentucky Derby rankings and ran Always Dreaming instead in a 1 1/8-mile allowance race on the same card. By doing this, he would pass up the opportunity to accumulate valuable Derby points, which meant that Always Dreaming would have to depend on getting those points in the grade I Florida Derby or else forfeit his chance of getting into the race. Relying on only a single grade I race against the leading Florida 3-year-olds and whoever else might ship in was a sign of extreme confidence in the horse.
Pletcher, who likes to be an imposing presence in all the major Derby preps, obviously felt Always Dreaming would benefit more from stretching out to 1 1/8 miles and putting more bottom under him, and using the race as a learning experience rather than subject the colt to a battle for which he might not be quite ready. It was a case of looking far beyond the Fountain of Youth and assessing the best way of getting Always Dreaming to the Kentucky Derby at the very peak of his form, even at the risk of -- pardon the cliché -- putting all his eggs in one basket in a grade 1 stakes.
As it turned out, competing on that Gulfstream surface in the allowance race was like running on the beach with combat boots, as a combination of wind and a drying out track made for tortoise-like conditions that were at their worst for that race, run as the first race on the card, By asking Always Dreaming to shut down his high octane engine and merely coast most of the way and then have John Velazquez step on the gas only in the final sixteenth, it added an entirely new dimension to the colt's arsenal of weapons and proved a valuable learning lesson. To see that instant acceleration when asked and then watch him continue on past the wire a full mile and a quarter was validation that the colt was versatile and classy enough to adapt to any scenario and showed that Velazquez could push any buttons he wanted at any point of a race.
When the conditions dictated a return to pure speed in the Florida Derby, Always Dreaming handled that scenario just as well, crushing his competition, while missing Arrogate's track record by three-fifths of a second. He had run the gamut of speed and restraint and was now ready for a peak performance on the first Saturday in May.
Pletcher also went old school when, unlike his normal training methods, he worked Always Dreaming five-furlongs before the Derby in :59 3/5 when the majority of the trainer's works are somewhere between 1:00 and change and 1:01 and change. Most of the old-school horsemen worked their horses longer and faster. Even a trainer like John Nerud, who had a more conservative approach to works, once worked Dr. Fager five furlongs in :56 4/5. But Pletcher follows more in the mode of his mentor Wayne Lukas, who usually worked his horses in that 1:00 and change to 1:01 and change range and six furlongs between 1:13 and 1:14. So, when Pletcher works a horse in :59 3/5 and has him gallop out like a powerhouse in 1:12 3/5 and seven furlongs in 1:25 3/5, you can't help but think old school.
Years ago, it was customary for the Kentucky Derby winner and all the Derby starters to head straight to Pimlico immediately following the Derby. Then in 1992 and '93, trainer Tom Bohannan broke tradition and shipped his Loblolly Stable-owned Derby starters Pine Bluff and Prairie Bayou to Belmont Park after the Derby and did not ship to Baltimore until the Wednesday before the Preakness. And then he had the audacity to win the Preakness with both horses, which opened the floodgates. When something proves successful in racing everyone follows.
In 1995, Wayne Lukas took it another step by keeping his Derby winner Thunder Gulch and third-place finisher Timber Country at Churchill Downs until the Wednesday before the Preakness, then won it with Timber Country and finished third with Thunder Gulch. He would have done the same with 1996 Derby winner Grindstone, but the colt came out of the Derby injured and was retired. Then it was Bob Baffert following suit with Silver Charm and Real Quiet in 1997 and '98 and Lukas again with Charismatic in 1999. The Wednesday shipping became pretty much the thing to do, as almost every Derby winner since has either remained at Churchill Downs or shipped to New York or shipped to Fair Hill, or shipped to Philadelphia Park of all places. The Wednesday arrival became an event, as reporters, photographers, and cameramen gathered outside the stakes barn well in advance, forming a gauntlet through which the Derby winner would pass.
So, when Always Dreaming won the Kentucky Derby, one naturally assumed that Pletcher would ship the colt to Belmont Park to be with his main string and then make the typical Wednesday royal entrance.
But once again. Pletcher went old school and shipped Always Dreaming directly to Pimlico immediately following the Derby. Just like old times.
When you get right down to it, Always Dreaming is an old-school kind of horse. His sire, grandsire, and great-grandsire ran in a total of seven Triple Crown races. His great-grandsire Unbridled is remembered for winning the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic, but few remember that he crushed champion sprinter Housebuster by three lengths in the seven-furlong Deputy Minister Handicap in 1:21 4/5 and won a seven-furlong allowance race at Arlington Park by 6 1/2 lengths in 1:21 flat. His broodmare sire, In Excess, still holds the track record of 1:58 1/5 for 1 1/4 miles at Belmont Park and also won the Met Mile, so versatility runs in his family.
So we have an old-school horse being trained old school, who possesses speed, stamina, and versatility and you can turn him on and off at will.
To me, we haven't even gotten to the bottom of this horse, and if you put all the letters together it spells Triple Crown winner. There ya go. I buried the lead.