By Mike Kane
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY–To punctuate his acceptance speech that concluded the Hall of Fame induction ceremony Friday, trainer Todd Pletcher used a favorite line of the late Cot Campbell, the Thoroughbred owner and colorful racing personality who was one of his longtime patrons.
“It's not going to sound nearly as cool coming from me, he was a cool guy,” Pletcher said, “but most of all, I want to thank the horses, the horses and the horses.”
Campbell's words were a fitting coda for racing's annual feel-good day that salutes the best of the best in the America's oldest sport. The 2020 ceremony was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic so the 65th and 66th Hall of Fame classes at the National Museum of Racing were welcomed into the shrine during a two-hour ceremony at the Fasig-Tipton's Humphrey S. Finney Sales Pavilion.
Pletcher, 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and steeplechase trainer Jack Fisher comprised this year's class. The 2020 inductees were trainer Mark Casse, jockey Darrell McHargue, the horses Wise Dan and Tom Bowling, and three honored as Pillars of the Turf: J. Keene Dangerfield Jr., George D. Widener, Jr. and Alice Headley Chandler. Pletcher and American Pharoah were elected in the first year they were eligible to be on the ballot: 25 years of service for a trainer and five calendar years after retirement for horses.
While Casse, with the help if his wife, Tina, delivered the most emotional speech of the event, Pletcher was typically precise and under control throughout. He was introduced by owner Mike Repole, who totally ignored the mandate to be brief and spoke for over 18 minutes. Repole served up a mix of praise and humor to salute his trainer and friend.
“I got into owning race horses 2004, and I watched this young trainer just keep winning races,” Repole said. “I sat there at Aqueuct, Belmont and Saratoga and I watched my horses in the same race as his. What consistently happened after the races, he would walk right by me and go to the winner's circle and I would sit there a loser. If you can't beat him, you join him.”
Repole said that Pletcher belonged in the Hall of Fame of Hall of Famers, the top 1% and predicted that at the age of 54, he would add to his long list of accomplishments.
“He's an icon. He's a legend,” Repole said. “He's going to go down as one of the greatest of all time.”
Pletcher already leads the way with $410 million in purse-money earned. He was the first to reach $300 million and has a $48 million lead over fellow Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen. Pletcher ranks seventh on the career list with 5,157 victories, which include two in the GI Kentucky Derby, three in GI Belmont S. and 11 in the Breeders' Cup.
After years working for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, Pletcher took out his license in December 1995 and opened a seven-horse stable. He now trains 200 horses.
“I can't tell you how humbled I am to join this esteemed group,” Pletcher said. “So many of these guys were my childhood heroes, role models and mentors, competitors.”
Pletcher noted that Jerry Bailey rode his first winner and that Jose Santos–one of the 14 Hall of Fame members introduced at the ceremony–was up for his first loser.
“Jose, don't feel bad,” Pletcher said, smiling. “I've lost 17,458 more since then.”
Pletcher called Lukas a great mentor.
“After I went out on my own, the most common question I'd get is 'What is one thing that you've learned working for Wayne Lukas?'” Pletcher said. “The answer is: There's not one thing. It's everything. Everything matters. Every horse matters. Every horse owner matters.”
Fearful of forgetting to name and thank someone, and error he said he made in 2004 when accepting his first Eclipse Award, Pletcher called his election to the Hall of Fame a team event. But he made a point of saluting the late Jeff Lukas, his first boss in 1989, who suffered brain injuries when he was run over by a loose horse.
“I feel like no one has been more influential in the way that I try to conduct my business, than Wayne's son Jeff,” Pletcher said. “Jeff was a detail-oriented person. He was driven. He was motivated. He was a skilled horseman and he had the unique ability to make those around him better. There's no doubt in my mind, that if he didn't have a tragic accident that Jeff would have been inducted into the Hall of Fame years ago.”
Breeder-owner Ahmed Zayat and his son Justin accepted American Pharoah's plaque. Trainer Bob Baffert did not attend the event.
“Thank you very much for voting for American Pharoah to be in here,” Zayat said. “This is very, very humbling for us. When I was trying to think of what to talk about–I probably can talk for another two hours about what the American Pharoah meant for me–I realized this is not about the Zayat family. This is about American Pharoah and what American Pharoah achieved.” He said he wanted “to point out American Pharoah as the people's horse, the horse that excited fans.”
Zayat said he had three distinct memories of the 2015 season: announcer Larry Collmus's call of the GI Belmont S. finish that made American Pharoah the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years followed by the reaction of the crowd; the reception that American Pharoah received at Saratoga, where he galloped on Friday before an estimated crowd of 15,000 the morning before his upset loss in the GI Travers; the hero's tribute upon his arrival at Keeneland where he won the GI Breeders' Cup Classic.
“These are memories that I will never forget about what American Pharoah meant for the sport and the public,” Zayat said.
Zayat congratulated the inductees from both classes, including Pletcher who trained some horses for his stable.
“One final thing,” Zayat said. “Thank you, Bob Baffert for just a brilliant training job and for opening your barn for every single person to come and visit American Pharoah.”
Casse had to wait a year for his induction ceremony and he relished the opportunity to thank the people who set him on the path to the Hall of Fame. At the top of the list was his late father, Norman, a trainer and an important figure in the development of Florida's breeding and bloodstock business. Casse took out his license as a teenager and developed into successful trainer. He left the day-to-day competition on the track in the early 1990s to manager Harry Mangurian's farm, but returned several years later to win multiple titles in Canada and become one of the premier trainers in the United States.
Confident, enthusiastic and outgoing, Casse promptly set the stage as he stepped to podium wearing his new Hall of Fame blazer.
“Let me start by saying, I have a better chance of winning the Kentucky Derby that getting through this speech without losing my composure,” he said.
Casse' voice wavered and cracked a bit, but he continued.
“I've been very fortunate in my life to win many big races and awards but nothing greater than this honor,” he said. “The last few weeks, I've spent much time reflecting on the various paths my life has taken. It amazes me that every experience, relationship, conversation with friends, families and clients has molded and shaped my career. Who would have thought 50 years ago, as I slept over there in the parking lot, the Fasig-Tipton parking lot, with my dad, had breakfast every morning at the Saratoga Snack Shack that I would be standing here today?”
Casse said he would not have made it to the Hall of Fame without having great horses, but that the people who touched his life influenced him the most.
“Obviously, my dad, Norman, greatly encouraged me to follow my passion,” he said “My father was a huge part of my education with horses. And I inherited my love of racing from him. On this journey. Many family members have had to make sacrifices for me to pursue my career, but none greater than my mom.”
At that point, Casse, too emotional to continue, had his wife take over. She read the part describing how when his parents divorced when he was 13 his mother agreed to his request to stay in Florida with his father to be near horses.
Casse returned to the podium and thanked several of his major owners, John and Debby Oxley, Charlotte Weber, Robert Masterson and Gary Barber–all of whom were at the ceremony–for their support.
“In closing, my dad and I first visited the Hall of Fame in 1972 when I was 11,” Casse said. “I still remember walking around with my mouth open in amazement. At the end of the visit I confidently told my dad , 'I'm going to be in here some day.' As any good father would do, he said, 'Yes, Mark you will.'
“Well, we did it.”