Todd Pletcher

Todd Pletcher

Anne M. Eberhardt

Cup Countdown: Pletcher on the Prowl

Pletcher brings five to 2008 Breeders' Cup

Remember two years ago when Todd Pletcher sent a Napoleon-like army to the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs, only to come away without a single victory?

Well, that 17-horse assault is behind him, and now he returns to racing’s biggest stage with a mere five-horse platoon, which had been six until the untimely fever that hit his star grass horse Red Giant, forcing his withdrawal. But any opposing trainers who think Gen. Pletcher is coming undermanned may be in for a rude awakening. Pletcher has proven he’s deadly regardless of the size of his force, and the five he’s sending all have a big shot in their respective races.


With the word that Team Valor’s Fairbanks, originally slated to run in the Marathon, is seriously being considered for the Classic, Pletcher has an intriguing contender who has a great deal of ability, a high cruising speed, and is in the best form of his career.


Curlin ’s Thoro-Graph numbers tower over everyone in the Classic field, but Fairbanks is the only other horse who will be coming into the race off a negative number (the lower the number the better). In fact, he has paired up a negative 1/2 in his last two starts, both smashing performances. And in the race prior to those he ran a zero. That makes him competitive in the Classic and a good bet to at least finish in the top three. If he did enter for the Marathon he would be the class speed and the horse they all have to catch


Then we come to the Juvenile, where Pletcher has Champagne (gr. I) runner-up Munnings  and Sapling (gr. III) winner Silent Valor. The latter is coming off a fifth-place finish in the Norfolk Stakes (gr. I), beaten only 2 3/4 lengths.


Munnings has a ton of ability and he could be another overlay, especially if he handles the Pro-Ride. He certainly has as much talent as anyone in the field, likely has more natural speed than anyone, and turned in one of the most impressive maiden victories seen all year.


Silent Valor could be one of the biggest sleepers of the entire Breeders’ Cup card. After finishing second in a 4 1/2-furlong maiden race on Keeneland’s Polytrack, he romped by 6 1/4 lengths in the slop at Belmont. That was followed by a powerful score in the Sapling over a fast track at Monmouth. Off that six-furlong race, he was sent to Santa Anita where he stretched out to 1 1/16 miles over the Pro-Ride surface.


Tracking the pace, he made a good move to reach contention and was still right there at the eighth pole, but failed to sustain his move. Jockey Garrett Gomez felt the colt was getting very tired at the end, which was to be expected in his first try on Pro-Ride and first going two turns. Still, he was beaten less than three lengths. It is widely believed many horses need a race over the surface to get used to it and often improve in their second attempt. This race put a lot of bottom into Silent Valor. With a two-turn race under him and a feel for the surface it is reasonable to expect a big improvement next time, especially with Pletcher feeling confident enough to give him another chance. He’ll be a huge price, but could surprise a lot of people. Don’t be shocked to see Pletcher run 1-2 in this race, especially if Square Eddie  falls victim to the so-called Euro bounce.


Next we come to the undefeated Bittel Road - Horse Profile -">Bittel Road for the Juvenile Turf. Already a game winner of two stakes, the son of Stormy Atlantic likely will be the favorite or second favorite. He has shown a tremendous will to win and can beat you on the pace or from far back, as he did in the Bourbon Stakes (gr. IIIT) in his last start. You can bet he’ll be coming strong in the stretch.


And last but not least we come to Wait a While, whose four-for-four record in Southern California on the turf, three of them coming at Santa Anita, speaks volumes for her chances in the Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT). Three of her four victories have come at the Filly & Mare Turf distance of 1 1/4 miles, in which she registered times of 1:59, 1:59 1/5, and 1:59 2/5.


So, there you have it. There are no big names like Curlin or Big Brown or Zenyatta in this group, but every one of them is more than capable of making their presence felt, and, frankly, it would be a surprise if Pletcher did not have a big Breeders’ Cup weekend. After all, a good general is deadly no matter what size army he commands.


Cat and mouse


As of Monday morning, several battles of wit and will were taking place in determining the status of Well Armed, Fairbanks, and Mast Track. The decisions made over the next 24 hours will determine the entire strategy of the Classic. It had been understood Mast Track was definitely going in the Classic, Well Armed in the Dirt Mile, and Fairbanks in the Marathon. But trainers and owners still have discussions planned, and late Monday, Bobby Frankel, who owns, trains, and bred Mast Track, indicated is now is seriously considering entering the Dirt Mile. If Well Armed remains in the Dirt Mile, and his :46 4/5 half-mile work this morning indicates that’s where trainer Eoin Harty is leaning, that would leave Fairbanks as the controlling speed. If it is decided to switch Well Armed to the Classic, he would have a perfect stalking trip behind Fairbanks. Are you keeping up?


After final discussions this afternoon between owners and trainers, when the stronger wills will prevail, we’ll have a better idea just how the Classic is going to be played out.


Several of the Classic hopefuls, most notably Curlin and Colonel John (:49 1/5), had excellent breezes this morning, but it was the Frankel-trained Champs Elysees that was a standout. Wearing blinkers for the first time, the Juddmonte Stable colt, normally a lazy worker, looked like a powerhouse, drilling five furlongs in :59 3/5. He was sharp right from the start, negotiated the turn into the stretch perfectly, and leveled off beautifully. Without any urging whatsoever, he lowered his head and shoulder and was reaching out with great extension and then galloped out strongly. This is a long-striding colt who was gobbling up the ground as if he was loving the track. Whether he’s good enough to beat these kinds of horses remains to be seen, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him make his presence felt off this work and the way he moved up with blinkers. Needless to say he’ll be wearing blinkers in the Classic.


Another under-the-radar horse who looked good working this morning was Student Council, who breezed a half in :48. He’s feeling good, he’s fresh, and he appears to be extremely sharp coming into the race. And, he’s the only horse in race with a recent Thoro-Graph number comparable to Curlin.