Horses a Timeless Pursuit for J. J. Pletcher

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J.J. Pletcher | Joe DiOrio

By Chris McGrath

Ruidoso Downs, New Mexico, 1968. J.J. Pletcher, 30 years old, is trying his luck with a few Quarter Horses–and by now some Thoroughbreds too–applying skills first learned helping his uncle, a weekend rodeo roper, in Texas. And here was this guy, D. Wayne Lukas, drawing attention to himself round the backside–and not just with those unbelievable white chaps of his.

“We used to call him Mr. Clean,” Pletcher remembered, half a century later. “That was some guy on an advertisement for cleaning fluid, so that’s what we called him, Mr. Clean, everything had to be just right. Got to know him pretty well. He was getting big at that time. He had a gift for gab, for lack of a better word; didn’t spoil the story for lack of material, put it that way. And he could back up a lot of it. He was good at what he did.”

Well, all the world knows that now. And, of course, there would be another charismatic defector from Quarter Horses a couple of decades later. But if Lukas and Bob Baffert represent the gleaming twin peaks, nobody celebrating the transfusion of Quarter Horse lore into the modern Thoroughbred should be leaving Pletcher in their shadow.

Not just because it was his compass, through nature and nurture alike, that set his son Todd on the path to records beyond even Lukas or Baffert; nor simply because it was Lukas who took Todd under his wing, as he was learning the trade. Year by year, Pletcher Sr. retains a far more tangible role in his son’s success.

For one thing, it was his seasoned eye that picked out many of the horses who first made Todd’s name. To this day, moreover, he supervises the conversion of each new draft of raw recruits into battle-ready cadets at his Payton Training Center in Ocala.

One way or another, then, he has stitched another deep Quarter Horse seam into the manual of training Thoroughbreds in the 21st Century. I mean, really deep. Listen to Pletcher, in his soft tones, conjuring memories of the old days; of an adolescence in the care of his grandparents, small farmers in the Texas panhandle.

“Those county fairs in the summertime…” he mused, sitting at the desk of his office at Payton. “Maybe a $1,000 purse, 220 yards, 350 yards, a distance race would be a quarter of a mile– that was a marathon. But it was fun. And you learned a lot. You’d take your pick-up and trailer, load your horse and go; unload, tie it up to a tree, probably it was a bit like it must have been in Ireland 100 years ago. It was the farm during the week, and race on the weekends. These little bush tracks round Texas, there’d be three or four horses in the race and you’d bet a little on the side.”

Yes, the odd wager was essential. Because there was no real money to be made otherwise.

“You had to enjoy it to do it, because you barely could make a living,” Pletcher said. “That’s why you had to get out of the business, why they switched to Thoroughbreds: out of necessity. And then Wayne went to New York and started putting these horses on the front end–and they just somehow kept going. These guys had been training them to come from behind for 100 years, they didn’t know what had happened. All of a sudden he had it figured out. Pretty smart. Wayne probably changed the Thoroughbred industry as much as he did the Quarter Horse one.”

Pletcher’s own impact, if barely less profound, would be in a lower key. He dismisses his record as a trainer of Thoroughbreds–“won a few races, enough to keep a few clients, but nothing big”–but one of his patrons did have some land in Florida. And, when Pletcher tired of the track life, he accepted an invitation to establish a training center down there in 1985. It was the right time to put down some roots. Pletcher’s wife  Joan able to start what has itself become a thriving business, as a realtor specialising in equine facilities.

And then there was Todd, heading off to college in Arizona.

“He was raised on the racetrack, more or less,” Pletcher said. “Being an only child, he was at the barn when he wasn’t at school. He wanted to learn all the time. He could have done whatever he made up his mind to do, he was that smart. Everybody could tell you that, seeing this little kid with such personality, such work ethic. And he always knew what he wanted to do.”

So every summer during college Todd would be sent to one of his father’s old track buddies: Charlie Whittingham, Henry Moreno and, of course, Lukas–whose barn Todd joined, full-time, on graduation. Father and son drove non-stop from Texas to New York, taking turns at the wheel, and Todd started work next morning.

During the next seven years, against that unique Lukas whetstone, Todd sharpened the instincts and knowledge already absorbed from his father. In the meantime, as in every life, there were the usual unreadable shifts of fate. On the one hand, the Lukas team also included Gerard Butler, who would go on to train Group 1 winners in Europe and is now assistant to Pletcher Sr. On the other, there was the terrible day when the loose Tabasco Cat galloped over Jeff Lukas, the trainer’s son and right hand man. Todd found himself assuming many of that tragic figure’s responsibilities.

By the time Todd set up his own barn, in 1996, his father was also at a crossroads following the death of the patron who had brought him to Florida. They sat down together.

“You gotta have young horses in this game,” Pletcher told his son. “Gotta have them coming in every year.”

So they agreed to set up their own breaking and pre-training complex; it would be named after Pletcher’s first grandson, Payton, born the year after the 80-acre, 96-stall facility was built.

Pletcher had been going to sales forever, of course, but just about the first he attended for their new venture was Keeneland September 1998. He went to look at a horse way out the back hill, happened to look across–and there he was: a son of Southern Halo.

Joan saw him coming back with sparkling eyes. She knew that look. “Pletch, what have you seen?” she asked.

“I seen this horse, he’s put together so good! He’s not big but, I mean, he just has this lift in his walk.”

Signed for by Edward Rosen at $187,000, the colt was taken on by James Scatuorchio. Pletcher took him down to Florida, broke him, and found him such a natural that he reckoned him ready for a 4 1/2-furlong race at Keeneland in the spring. Todd objected that he didn’t even have a name yet.

“Todd,” Pletcher Sr. said. “This horse can run.”

“So he called up Scat,” he recalled. “And he said: ‘Scat, where you at?’ And Scat said: ‘I’m in France.’ ‘We gotta name this horse, there’s a race for him next week, last day of the meet.’ ‘Well, is he ready to run?’ And Todd said: ‘He’s more than ready.’ And Scat’s wife was sitting there with him, and she said: ‘Well, call him More Than Ready!’ Won nine lengths. And paid $9.00. I’ll never forget it. We all made a little. We loved those kind of deals, you didn’t have to do anything sneaky but now a horse breezes one time it’s in every publication in the United States!”

Though he did hang on for fourth in the Kentucky Derby, More Than Ready really blossomed when dropped in distance, notably in the GI King’s Bishop S. Pletcher’s only regret–in view of the horse’s long record of accomplishment at stud, in both hemispheres–is selling his share. No matter: it was only the beginning.

Back at the same sale in 2003, way down the catalogue, Pletcher fell for a diminutive colt by Smart Strike. So diminutive, in fact, that Todd and the rest of their team teased him about it. “Didn’t have a lot to look at,” Pletcher admitted. “But I liked the horse, for some reason; he was just very balanced. He was selling Saturday, everybody left Friday, I made two bids and bought him for $50,000. So I called Scat and said: ‘I bought this little horse–but if you don’t want him, I’ll keep him.’ He said: ‘No, no, I want him.’ And I’ve kicked my ass many times for not saying I’ll have half. English Channel. Won $5 million, champion grass horse, won the [GI] Breeders’ Cup [Turf]. No, he wasn’t very big. But he was the gutsiest S.O.B. you ever saw.”

And then, two years later, the horse that would embed Scaturchio’s nickname in the lexicon of the breed.

“Horse was next to last for sale that day,” recalled Pletcher. “Scat came out to the bar and told Todd: ‘I’m going to 150. No more.’ ‘Yes Scat.’ Got to $150,000, Todd just kept on bidding. Bought him for $250,000. And Scat just said: ‘Man!’ We just decided, we stayed that long we were gonna buy him. We’d have sold him to somebody, if Scat didn’t take him. The good part was that Scat, next day or so, said: ‘I’m giving you and Todd half this horse.’ That’s why we’re living in a nice house. Just the kind of guy he is, there’s very few people like him.”

As Scat Daddy (Johannesburg) began to shine on the track, the Pletchers sold their half to another valued client in Michael Tabor. There was still a breeding stake in the horse, however–and what might that be worth now, had Scat Daddy not dropped dead aged just 11?

“He was so well balanced, one of those you knew he was a runner just by looking at him,” said Pletcher, shaking his head. “Best moving horse I ever broke. I breezed him coupla times and I rang Todd and said: ‘I’m sending you this horse; I’m not gonna keep him here. He’s too good, I’m not messing him up.'”

Two old allies, Tabor and More Than Ready, have meanwhile opened a new chapter in the latter’s son Verrazano, now trying to fill the breach left by Scat Daddy at Ashford.

“Think we’ve got a chance with him,” Pletcher said. “Watch him, his covers sold pretty good.”

And so the legacy continues to grow. Who can say how far any of these sires might have gotten, without Pletcher to find them? Without Pletcher, to give them a grounding; and, of course, to have given their trainer an education of his own?

At 80, true, he greatly values the prodigious energy and talent of Butler. (“Just like Todd,” he says. “A workaholic, daylight to dark.”) But nor can there be many keener eyes in the game, having sifted crop after crop for so many decades.

“You look at a good Thoroughbred, you’ll see a lot of Quarter Horse in there,” Pletcher said. “Well balanced, a big ass on him, a lot of drive. When you bought a Quarter Horse, you didn’t want it muscle-bound or too skinny, you wanted that balance. So I think that’s one of the reasons Baffert and Lukas done good, too–it helped those guys a lot.

“You do train them so different, of course. With Quarter Horses, they had to be ready to go when you said go; Thoroughbreds, you’re trying to get them to relax. But whether you’re training jumping horses, trotters, whatever, basically it all still boils down to soundness, and getting into their heads.”

So here he is, testing the fruit of his judgement once again. The latest bunch of youngsters started breezing at the start of the month, and wheat will soon be sorted from chaff. Todd, needless to say, is getting his daily bulletins.

“It don’t take long to spot a runner,” Pletcher shrugs. “Most of the real good ones have a good brain. They wouldn’t run off or flip over or do something crazy. But the better the education they get as yearlings, 2-year-olds, the better chance they’ll have as racehorses.”

But the vagaries of life, especially the horseman’s life, remain ever in mind. After a lifetime of horse-trading, from the Texas fairgrounds to Scat Daddy, Pletcher never forgets the gambler’s prayer.

“Dear Lord,” he recited, smiling. “Help me break even.”

 

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