David and Goliath Both Seeking That One Horse


Todd Pletcher | Adam Coglianese


During this era of globalisation, our own walk of life has also become ever more adapted to scale. In the old days, trainers and stallions alike would draw the line at a similar number: up to three dozen, say. Now all big brands seem to require big volume.

With stallion books, the traditional limits guaranteed undiluted quality. If you wanted to get a mare to Bold Ruler, boy, did she have to deserve the privilege. That's why I always look for those venerable influences, up-and-down, behind modern pedigrees: because you're getting the good stuff, whatever filters through.

Nowadays, however, science and avarice routinely conspire to corral 200-plus mares for many unproven young stallions, and I suspect we'll be reaping a dismal harvest even after we introduce a ceiling of “only” 140.

The advent of the “super trainer” has been viewed with equal concern by many of the old school. How, they ask, can even the most masterly horsemen monitor every nuance as fastidiously as did Charlie Whittingham, when they have 10 times as many animals on their books–and, moreover, have to commute between divisions by plane?

Yet many of the biggest investors seem happy to forfeit that kind of intimate surveillance and it's hard to argue with the results. Granted assistants of adequate caliber, the system is demonstrably equal to pressures of scale; and it schools elite trainers who themselves, in turn, start delegating responsibility to emerging talents.

The template for that process was Todd Pletcher, who learned his trade managing East Coast divisions for the mold-breaking Wayne Lukas. By prodigious focus, organization and dynamism, Pletcher has parlayed his talent into record-breaking yields since 1996. Only last weekend he became the first trainer to bank $400 million; he has seven Eclipse Awards as Outstanding Trainer (only the late Bobby Frankel even has five); and the many stallions he has made include Uncle Mo, Speightstown, More Than Ready, Quality Road, Munnings, English Channel and now Constitution.

This is the year Pletcher becomes eligible to take a place long reserved in the Hall of Fame. As such, you would imagine that he will be eager, through 2021, to reiterate his historic standing in the story of our sport. Because what we must always remember, looking at these industrial stables, is that they remain driven and defined by the human strengths and foibles of one individual. And, having just endured his slowest year since 2002 (obviously the COVID-squeezed program/prizemoney had an awful lot to do with that), Pletcher will definitely be looking to roll back strong this time 'round.

You don't have the success he has made routine without harnessing phenomenal talent to equal ambition. And if his own career has itself been game-changing, Pletcher will know that one neglected paradox of the “super trainer” culture is that competition has been rendered tougher at the elite level, too. With no real limit on numbers, then the best material won't be shared too far even at the very top.

In terms of how long they have been on the scene, Pletcher has to be bracketed closer with Bob Baffert than Chad Brown or Brad Cox. In age, however, he is actually closer to those young guns. At 53, Pletcher remains in his prime–and yet he has seen it all. Few conditioners of his years can ever have compiled a more comprehensive playbook of familiar challenges.

Little wonder if Shadwell, on the retirement of Kiaran McLaughlin, named Pletcher as their man. Remember that even last year–when the dust had barely settled, after all, on his first win in the GI Breeders' Cup Classic–his 22% strike-rate was as metronomic as ever. And while Mutasaabeq (Into Mischief) is sadly off the GI Kentucky Derby trail with a minor shin issue, his 45 Triple Crown nominees match the second- and third-highest entries (Baffert 23, Steve Asmussen 22) combined.

And you need only consider the fields assembling for both the races carrying Derby points Saturday to heighten a sense that here is a trainer ready to regroup and reassert.

Known Agenda (Curlin) contests the GIII Sam F. Davis S. with his reputation freshly gilded by the performance at Gulfstream last week of Greatest Honour (Tapit). Even in opening up by 21 lengths on the third, that colt hadn't been able to get past him in a stretch duel at Aqueduct in November. The St Elias Stable homebred has already demonstrated plenty of stamina, then, albeit his damsire Byron (GB) (Green Desert) was a brisk horse with a brisk page. (Plenty of fuel, you guess, coming through from Darshaan (GB) (Shirley Heights {GB}) behind his second dam.)

We'll cheerfully put a line through Known Agenda's subsequent effort in the GII Remsen S., where so unhappy on the slop that his rider resorted to the whip a couple of times on the backstretch. His maiden success, after all, has meanwhile been boosted by the distant third, barnmate Overtook (Curlin), who now graduates to stakes company in the GIII Withers S.

Actually St Elias Stable, that reliable badge of class, also has a piece of this improver. His closing style will presumably contrast with Pletcher's other runner here, Donegal Bay (Uncle Mo), who shook off his pursuers nicely breaking his maiden. All these horses are bred for the job, too. Known Agenda is out of a Grade I winner; likewise Overtook, a $1 million yearling tracing to Numbered Account; and though Donegal Bay was picked up for $90,000, he belongs to a Juddmonte family of Classic accomplishment.

Let's be under no illusions, then. Even if Goliath nowadays finds himself in an armlock with opponents of equal brawn, it's still an awful lot harder being David. And there's no mistaking who fills that role here.

Capo Kane (Street Sense) was a $26,000 2-year-old purchase–his pinhooker no doubt caught in the COVID backdraft, after giving $75,000 the previous September–and gave trainer Harold Wyner the first stakes success of his life in the Jerome S.

Wyner is the ultimate journeyman. He first came over from Britain with Michael Dickinson, drifted around for a few years as an exercise rider, saddled six winners in two years when trying his luck as a trainer, and then spent four years installing satellite televisions. But he couldn't keep away, and this time last year must have thought that his perseverance was finally going to pay off. He had assisted in the purchase of a Cross Traffic colt, who had failed to make his reserve as a 2-year-old at $27,000. Wyner trained Ny Traffic through his first four starts, but the horse was then transferred to Saffie Joseph, Jr. and became a Grade I regular.

No need to dwell on that now. Capo Kane is another Timonium graduate and Wyner knows him inside out, as the most literally hands-on of trainers: he gallops as many of his charges as he can every day. So he knows there's more to come from Capo Kane, who drifted out even as he went clear in the Jerome. There's turf royalty in his family–second dam by Kingmambo out of Tuzla (Fr) (Panoramic {GB}), who missed the GI Breeders' Cup Mile by a neck–and that shows in the ease and athleticism of his movement; while on the other hand his sire beat his damsire in the 2007 Derby.

Third that day was Curlin, sire of Known Agenda and Overtook. Seems like that class still can't leave each other alone. Street Sense, of course, was saddled by a revered horseman in Carl Nafzger, who started a total of 17 animals that whole year. Context: Asmussen topped the 2020 prizemoney table with 630 starters, followed by Cox with “only” 328. But there's only ever one Derby winner out there–and there's no reason he can't be among Wyner's two dozen charges at Parx.

Meanwhile, we'll be keeping an eye on the two debut winners Baffert runs in the GII San Vicente S., having won the race last year with a horse of similar profile in Nadal (Blame). One of them, the Wests' homebred Concert Tour (Street Sense), shares his sire with Capo Kane; the other, Freedom Fighter, while he has a powerful ownership group, is a $120,000 son of Violence who was there to be found at Keeneland as Hip 1522.

Don't forget we've just seen what this guy can do with a $1,000 short yearling/$35,000 2-year-old by Protonico. With 118 starters in 2020, Baffert ranked 41st in the nation by numbers. No “super trainer,” then–but I guess he's doing okay.

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