By Sid Fernando
Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher is on fire, unveiling one promising colt or filly after another in maiden, allowance, and stakes races it seems.
Last month, Pletcher won his eighth Eclipse Award as North America's leading trainer. Not only that, but three horses trained by Pletcher also won Eclipses: Forte (Violence), champion 2-year-old colt; Nest (Curlin), champion 3-year-old filly; and Malathaat (Curlin), champion older female.
Like Pletcher, Curlin shone at the Eclipses. Aside from Nest and Malathaat, his Elite Power was named champion sprinter of 2022, giving the Hill 'n' Dale-based stallion three individual Eclipse winners in one year, the first time any stallion has had more than two in a year.
Curlin and Pletcher, in case it wasn't evident, have a special long-term relationship. On Saturday, the promising Pletcher-trained Julia Shining (Curlin), a Grade ll-winning 3-year-old sister to Malathaat owned and bred by Stonestreet, finished third in her season debut in the one-mile-and-40-yard Suncoast S. at Tampa Bay Downs, 1 1/4 lengths behind 2-year-old champion Wonder Wheel (Into Mischief), who in turn was a neck behind 38-1 upsetter Dreaming of Snow (Jess's Dream), a granddaughter of Curlin. This Saturday, Pletcher saddles Crupi (Curlin) in the Gll Risen Star S. at Fair Grounds for Repole Stable and St. Elias Stable. Crupi is a maiden; he has placed in each of his five starts, but like Julia Shining, who won the Gll Demoiselle at 1 1/8 miles last year, he figures to improve as the year progresses and the distances increase. That's simply a function of the Curlins.
Pletcher has trained a number of prominent stallions throughout his career, including More Than Ready, Scat Daddy, Quality Road, Uncle Mo, Speightstown, and Munnings, among others. There isn't another modern-day trainer with such a striking record as a stallion maker. None of these stallions, however, regularly imparts stamina in the pronounced manner that Curlin does. And many of the better Curlins frequently get even more stamina in their pedigrees from their broodmare sires, because the stallion nicks so well with Seattle Slew-line mares. Both Nest and Malathaat (and Julia Shining), for instance, are from A.P. Indy mares; Crupi, who was bred by Claiborne, is from a mare by A.P. Indy's top sire son Malibu Moon, the sire of Gl Kentucky Derby winner Orb. (Skinner, a promising maiden winner from over the weekend for John Shirreffs, is also from a Malibu Moon mare and was bred by Stonestreet.) In different hands, the Curlin sons and daughters that have excelled with Pletcher may not have realized their potential. They have with Pletcher because he understands pedigrees and specifically knows how the Curlins tick.
“A lot of our training program builds toward stamina,” Pletcher said. “I don't think [the Curlins] want to be rushed off their feet. We always feel like you want to let a horse be comfortable, and if you're trying to take them out of their comfort zone early on, then you're probably not going to finish the way you want to. We would expect them, hopefully, to put themselves in a tactical position, but you wouldn't see too many of them going wire to wire. We've recognized that, for whatever reason, he fits our program well.”
Curlin, a son of the Mr. Prospector stallion Smart Strike, has been represented by six Eclipse winners to date, and Pletcher has handled three of them. In addition to Nest and Malathaat, he also trained Vino Rosso, champion older male of 2019.
Though the Curlins aren't especially noted for early maturity and front-running speed, the best of them have plenty of class, are seemingly Classics contenders every year, improve with time, and are particularly adept at a mile and a sixteenth and above on dirt. That's because Curlin, a two-time Horse of the Year, was a Classic winner and a mile-and-a-quarter specialist who also stayed a mile and a half on dirt (he lost the Gl Belmont S. by a head to the Pletcher-trained A.P. Indy filly Rags to Riches, who, like Curlin, was out of a mare by Deputy Minister). In fact, it was notable and surprising that in 2022 Curlin got a champion sprinter and two others, Cody's Wish and Obligatory, that won Grade l races at seven furlongs. Both Cody's Wish, who won the Gl Forego at Saratoga, and Obligatory, first in the Gl Derby City Distaff at Churchill, won their respective sprints by closing from the back of the pack.
Bill Mott trained the trio of Elite Power, Cody's Wish, and Obligatory, and before them he'd trained Gl Coaching Club American Oaks winner Paris Lights, giving him four of Curlin's 20 top-level winners.
Only Pletcher has more, and then some. He has trained an astounding eight of the 20, or 40% Grade l winners. Aside from champions Nest, Malathaat, and Vino Rosso, Pletcher handled Belmont S. and Gl Metropolitan H. winner Palace Malice, who was from Curlin's first crop; Gl Florida Derby winner Known Agenda; the fillies Curalina, who won the Coaching Club American Oaks, and Off the Tracks, winner of the Gl Mother Goose. Keen Ice, who won the Gl Travers for Dale Romans, won the Gll Suburban at a mile and a quarter for Pletcher.
I asked Pletcher if there is a common physical thread among the Curlins.
“I think yes and no,” he said. “I do think there are some similarities in the good ones, that they're medium–at least medium–to larger size. Some of them can tend to be a little bit small, and we've found that the better ones maybe have a little more size and scope, but in terms of a particular conformational prototype, I don't know that there is. Keen Ice was a big strong horse, and so is Palace Malice. Off the Tracks was a very talented filly, but conformationally she was very, very incorrect but was able to overcome that with good mechanics. Malathaat is a scopey, long mare; Curalina was a little more refined, but she was impressive as a 2-year-old; Nest is not real big, but she's one of the best walkers I've seen. For a filly that's probably just over 15.3, she covers a lot of ground. There is an athletic component to the good ones, and in particular, I'd say Nest would stand out as an outstanding walker.”
Pletcher also noted that some of the Curlins may show talent in workouts that takes some time to translate to races.
“Known Agenda reminded me a lot of Vino Rosso in that way. If we hadn't had the setback that ultimately made them decide to retire him to stud, Known Agenda was going to be a good 4-year-old. As a younger horse, he would display more talent sometimes in the mornings than we were producing in the afternoons. But then he kind of put it together in the Florida Derby, and I thought if we'd had a chance to go on with him, we would have seen him get more consistent. I'm not saying he would have won the Breeders' Cup Classic like Vino, but he had that sort of potential.”
Mike Repole's Repole Stable, which co-owns Nest with Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Michael House, raced Vino Rosso in partnership with Vinnie and Teresa Viola's St. Elias Stable, which bred and raced Known Agenda. Both Repole and Viola are billionaire patrons of Pletcher, and they race Forte, the current Derby favorite, in partnership as well. However, they know the value of the Curlins and their trainer's ability with them, and they've loaded up on more sons and daughters of the stallion to send Pletcher's way. Last September at Keeneland, the two combined to sign for two fillies at $650,000 and $450,000, and two colts at $400,000 each. Meanwhile Repole, in partnership with Coolmore, bought a colt for $1.1 million, and in another partnership with Spendthrift bought a colt for $525,000. For his own account, Repole then purchased another five with agent Jacob West signing the tickets: three fillies for $675,000, $500,000, and $250,000; and two colts for $320,000 and $275,000.
So be prepared to see even more Curlins in Pletcher's hands this year, and not just from Repole and Viola. Stonestreet, which raced Curlin with Steve Asmussen and is the stallion's majority owner, campaigns Grade l winner Clairiere with Asmussen, but the operation sent Julia Shining to Pletcher instead of Asmussen, presumably because of Pletcher's success with her Grade l-winning dam, Dreaming of Julia (A.P. Indy), and with her champion sister Malathaat, but also for his sterling record with their stallion.
Pletcher is a maestro with the Curlins.
Sid Fernando is president and CEO of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants, Inc., originator of the Werk Nick Rating and eNicks.