There are few mountains left for trainer Todd Pletcher to scale. While the veteran horseman is not yet in the Hall of Fame—he’s sure to be a first-ballot entrant when he becomes eligible in 2021—he ranks first among trainers all-time with more than $395 million in earnings. He’s won two Kentucky Derbys (G1): Super Saver (2010) and Always Dreaming (2017) and 11 Breeders’ Cup races.
So it was of interest following Wertheimer and Frere’s Happy Saver’s rail-skimming victory in the Oct. 10 Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) that the New York-based Pletcher was part of the post-race festivities for the first time. After all, the Gold Cup victory was Pletcher’s career win number 4,989.
“It’s been a difficult race for us to conquer. We thought we had done it last year with Vino Rosso and got disqualified, so that one was a difficult one to take,” Pletcher said the following morning. “We also had some other ones that were pretty tight finishes.”
A pair of his seven runner-up finishes in the Gold Cup also stung in the mind of the 53-year-old conditioner. In 2007, eventual champion older male Lawyer Ron had the lead in the lane but fell a neck shy of the 3-year-old Curlin at the wire at Belmont. Four years later the Pletcher-trained Stay Thirsty had a one-length lead at the eighth pole but relinquished the lead late to Flat Out at the end of 1 1/4 miles.
However, Pletcher was able to bask in the glow of this year’s win with a 3-year-old making just his fourth career start.
“I thought it was a big performance from Happy Saver. It was his first time against older horses; his first time in a grade 1; first time at a mile and a quarter, and he delivered a very professional performance,” the trainer said. “He’s come a long way in a short period of time from breaking his maiden on June 20 to winning the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 10. He’s just a quality horse.”
“The Wertheimers have been great supporters for many years, and I am so happy to win a grade 1 for them,” he said. “Also, he’s a son of Super Saver, our first Derby winner, and we also trained the mare, so it was a fun win all the way around.”
The Gold Cup is the Gold Cup, but it has lost a bit of sheen in the last few decades. Once a championship-defining race at season’s end, it’s generally been reduced to a prep for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) since the World Championships inception in 1984. Also, with COVID-19-reduced purses at the New York Racing Association this year, the Gold Cup’s purse, $250,000, was the lowest since 1976.
“That’s a race that was $750,000 last year. That’s what I said yesterday…now that it’s $250,000, now I get to win it,” Pletcher joked.
However COVID-19 has not been a joke for breeders, owners, or trainers.
“The COVID situation has affected everyone, and owners are certainly no exception,” Pletcher said. “One thing we feel good about is we’ve been able to continue racing. There was a hiatus in New York for a little while, but the bulk of our horses were in Florida at the time, and we were able to race there and shift to Oaklawn and Churchill Downs, but it’s been difficult. The purse structure has had to have some adjustments. The significant reductions in purses have affected everyone’s bottom line.
“The thing about it from a trainer’s perspective is that nothing has changed with our overhead,” he continued. “Our wages are still the same and, in fact, because we weren’t able to get quite a few of our visa workers, it created a situation where we were lighter on staff and had to have the employees we do have working extra hours and overtime. From an expense standpoint, it’s quite costly, especially in New York, but you do the best you can.”
Pletcher noted his payroll includes some 125 employees in multiple locations.
“We are fortunate enough to keep training and keep racing and, hopefully, there will be light at the end of the tunnel. We hope that once we approach the fall and the winter and the flu season we don’t see a re-spike in the situation. Ultimately we are dealing with this for the first time and learning as we go.”
And dealing with winning the Gold Cup for the first time.