For Thoroughbred trainers driven to succeed, it's all about numbers. That's the way it's been in the Hall of Fame career of D. Wayne Lukas, who virtually rewrote the record books in the 1980s, and that's how it is for his former assistant, Todd Pletcher, who Oct. 14 broke the single-season mark of 92 stakes victories established by Lukas in 1987.
Both men are driven to succeed, and both had the numbers behind them for their record-setting runs. Lukas dominated the national trainer standings for 10 consecutive years, from 1983-92, accelerating from $4.3 million in earnings that first year to a record $17.8 million in 1988. He had more than 1,000 starts in eight of those years, the highest number coming in 1987 when 1,735 horses went to the gate representing the Lukas juggernaut. That's more than 33 starts each week. From those, Lukas won 92 stakes, or roughly one every 19 starts.
Pletcher was a student at the time, majoring in animal science at the University of Arizona, from which he earned a degree in 1989. The son of trainer Jake Pletcher spent his summers working at the racetrack, first for trainer Henry Moreno in California, then for Lukas in Chicago, and then back in California for Hall of Famer Charlie Whittingham. Few trainers have had the opportunity to compile such a unique education, and Pletcher has made the most of what he learned in both the formal and practical settings of the classroom and racetrack.
Going to work full time for Lukas two weeks after his graduation, Pletcher saw the ups and downs of the high-profile Lukas stable, which suffered some lean years in the early 1990s before going on a record run with six consecutive Triple Crown race victories beginning with the 1994 Preakness Stakes (gr. I). Pletcher went out on his own in December 1995, and methodically built up a high-quality stable that today dominates the same way his former mentor's did 20 years ago.
Pletcher cracked $1 million in stable earnings in 1996, then doubled that in each of the next two years, reaching $5 million in earnings in 1998. After stalling at just below $5 million in 1999, Pletcher's success has steadily continued, hitting $7 million in 2000, $7.7 million in 2001, $8.7 million in 2002, $13.6 million in 2003, $17.5 million in 2004, a record $20.9 million in 2005, and another record, $22.3 million, through Oct. 15 of this year. At year's end, the Texas native will have won his third consecutive money title.
Pletcher will soon reach 1,000 starts for 2006, a number he hit for the first time last year when his total number of starts was 1,039. That means Pletcher has won a stakes once every 11 starts this year -- making his stable nearly twice as effective as Lukas' was in 1987.
Pletcher's 93 stakes were divided among 54 horses over 23 racetracks. Fleet Indian, with six stakes wins, has been the big horse in a stable full of stars, with Wait a While winning five stakes and English Channel four.
Forty individual horses captured stakes for Lukas in 1987, winning at 20 different racetracks. His toughest stakes performers were a pair of mares, Pine Tree Lane, who won seven, and North Sider, who bagged a half-dozen.
When Lukas won his 92 stakes in 1987, one very significant prize had still eluded him. That was the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), a race in which he'd started a dozen runners without success over the previous seven years. He ended that drought in 1988 with the first of his four Kentucky Derby victories.
Pletcher has had 14 Derby starters in the last seven years, and he has yet to be victorious in America's biggest horse race. But it's only a matter of time. Pletcher has the drive, the experience, the motivated owners, and the numbers. He's just now hitting his best stride.