Todd Pletcher's mantle, assuming he has a mantle, is filled with so many Eclipse Awards it must look like a row of war horses lined up for battle. But there is always room for more, and Pletcher already has several places reserved for additional statues this year.
Two of the statues are there for the taking, but there is one person who could stand in the way of filling those spots on his mantle and that is Pletcher himself.
On Sept. 28, Pletcher, who all but has the 3-year-old filly title locked up with Princess of Sylmar (who takes on Royal Delta in the grade I Beldame Invitational Stakes), will saddle his other leading Eclipse contenders, Cross Traffic (older male) and Palace Malice (3-year-old male) in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) at Belmont Park.
Chances are that a victory by Palace Malice would clinch the 3-year-old male title, unless Orb or Will Take Charge should capture the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I), which seems like a tall order this year. We know that Palace Malice has good early speed and likes to be right up there close to the pace. But that's where Cross Traffic wants to be as well. The Whitney Handicap (gr. I) winner likely will be on the lead, and we all know by now how tough he is to catch and then pass in the stretch.
Could Cross Traffic wind up costing Palace Malice an Eclipse Award? Could Palace Malice wind up costing Cross Traffic an Eclipse Award? Could both horses set it up for other Eclipse contenders, such as Orb or Flat Out ?
When you have as many good horses as Pletcher does, you're always going to run into a dilemma such as this. Who do you inwardly root for? Which colt needs a Gold Cup victory more? Is a win more important to Palace Malice or Cross Traffic? Is a defeat more damaging to Palace Malice or Cross Traffic? Could Cross Traffic even cost Palace Malice second in the Gold Cup, which could still get him an Eclipse Award by finishing ahead of Orb in one of the most wide-open title battles in memory?
This is a situation every trainer would love to be in, but it can cause some mixed emotions, especially if these two horses are locked in combat turning for home, with several grade I-winning stretch runners ready to pounce right behind them.
But Pletcher is willing to let the cards fall where they may and not concern himself with championships just yet.
"As usual, everyone is in a rush to crown the champion, but usually that isn't decided until November and December," Pletcher said Sept. 24 on an NTRA national teleconference. "I don't think anyone is heads and shoulders ahead of anyone else (in the 3-year-old division). It's going to be determined in the next 5 1/2 weeks. We'll see how the Jockey Club goes, and most likely the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) is going to carry a ton of weight."
Only three Jockey Club Gold Cup winners have gone on to win the Breeders' Cup Classic and two of those were Hall of Famers--Cigar and Skip Away -- and one is a future Hall of Famer, Curlin. Most recently, Blame and Drosselmeyer have used the Gold Cup as a springboard to the Classic score, but they were defeated at Belmont Park and both their Classic races were run at Churchill Downs, not Santa Anita Park.
Although Pletcher would love to win the Gold Cup with one of the two, the last thing he wants is for them to be gutted trying to win this race. One of the reasons Blame was able to win the Classic over Zenyatta was that he didn't bust a gut trying to catch the loose-on-the-lead Haynesfield. Neither Cigar nor Skip Away had to run particularly hard down the stretch in their Gold Cup victories.
So, you can see why many thoughts and feelings will pervade Pletcher's mind going into the Gold Cup, as well as during the race, as he sees how it unfolds. He wants both colts to run well enough to win, but he doesn't want the race to compromise their chances in the Classic.
Right now, he's just happy Palace Malice has held up so well following a hard 3-year-old campaign.
"You have to be a very good 3-year-old to beat older horses, particularly in this running of the Jockey Club Gold Cup, which looks to be a strong one," Pletcher said. "But we feel based on how he's been running and his maturity level and physical development he should stack up very well.To me, he's a remarkable horse. He began his campaign in January at Gulfstream and has gone on to race at Fair Grounds, Churchill Downs, Belmont, and Saratoga, including the Triple Crown prep series, two legs of the Triple Crown, and then the Jim Dandy (gr. II) and Travers Stakes (gr. I) and he's physically flourished with that type of activity. He's gotten bigger and stronger and looks like he's put on weight since the Travers. He seems to love the action and is just getting better and better.
"It's kind of rare to see a horse with those types of races on his resume continue to physically and mentally flourish and take everything in stride. He does everything you ask him to and has just been a pleasure to have in the barn. I was shocked he got as close as he did in the Travers once he got off to the start he did. He was standing pretty well and looked ready to go, but the ground just left him. Unfortunately for him, it took him out of his game plan and that stalking position we were able to get in the Belmont and Jim Dandy. Then you throw in a :48 4/5 half and I was surprised he was able to make up as much ground as he did. And he had a wide trip on top of it. It was a huge effort on his part to get beat only three-quarters of a length and I don't think he lost anything in defeat."
If Cross Traffic should win, backing up his victory in the Whitney and heartbreaking nose defeat in the Metroplitan Handicap (gr. I), it would put him one race away from the older male championship, with only Game On Dude standing in his way at Santa Anita.
"Cross Traffic is a big scopey son of Unbridled's Song," Pletcher said. "We decided to pass the Woodward Stakes (gr. I), which was a difficult decision because he was training very well. We just felt like we wanted to get to the Breeders' Cup Classic the best way we could, and passing the Woodward and waiting for the Gold Cup would hopefully put us in the best position.
"It's very rare that you see a horse that can accomplish as much as he has so early in his career, just as Graydar has, winning the Donn Handicap (gr. I) in his fourth career start. For Cross Traffic to be able to make his debut at four and win the Whitney in August and almost win the Met Mile in May speaks volumes how talented he and Graydar are."
Pletcher said Graydar, who runs in the Kelso Handicap (gr. II) Sept. 28, could go for the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I) or the Classic, while Verrazano definitely is headed for the Dirt Mile, along with possibly Shanghai Bobby , who captured an overnight stakes recently in his return off a layoff.
Such is life on planet Pletcher, where the skies are inundated with stars. But on occasion you'll see two or more shooting stars cross paths and all you can do is hope they don't collide. Pletcher is even running a third horse in the Gold Cup--the Brazilian-bred Vitoria Olimpica, who is coming off a victory in the 1 1/8-mile Alydar Stakes at Saratoga in his second start in the United States. Pletcher's owners know going in it's every man for himself and every horse for himself. That's just the natural order of things. It is a world that can pit equine neighbors against each other, as we will witness in the Gold Cup.
So, good luck to Dogwood Stable, owner of Palace Malice, and GoldMark Farm, owner of Cross Traffic. Shake hands and come out swinging.