By Mike Kane
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY–For the last dozen or so years, the competition for the training title at Saratoga Race Course has become the Todd and Chad Show.
The next round of the now-annual summer showdown of heavyweights in upstate New York between Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown begins Thursday, the opening day of the 154th season of racing at Saratoga. Pletcher, 55, the all-time leader, will seek his 15th championship, named to honor the late great H. Allen Jerkens. Brown, 43, who just completed a record-smashing Belmont spring/summer season, is seeking his fifth, all since he ended a six-year run by Pletcher in 2016.
Winning the training and riding titles at Saratoga has always been a big deal and great sport at America's most important meet. Finishing atop the standings at the Spa has often helped make careers and provided credentials for Eclipse Awards and later the Hall of Fame.
Pletcher served notice that he was a budding superstar when he won the Saratoga crown in 1998 as a 31-year-old in his third full season as a head trainer. Brown grew up in nearby Mechanicville and embraced racing at the Spa, earned the first of his four-consecutive Eclipse Awards a few months after securing his title at the age of 37.
According to stats provided by Equibase, Pletcher and Brown have finished either first or second in the Saratoga standings since 2011. During that stretch, Pletcher won seven times, but Brown has won four of the last six, including a record 46 in 2018.
Starting in 2008, Brown's first full season as a trainer, Pletcher has won 416 of 1,950 Saratoga starts. He has won 103 stakes, 60 of them graded. Brown has produced some big numbers in recent years, four times finishing with 40 or more. He has 392 victories from 1,600 starts, with a total of 90 stakes wins, 48 of them graded.
Pletcher has found the bulk of his success on the dirt, winning 292 of 1,197 starts. He has 124 wins in 753 races on grass. Brown's stats are in sharp contrast: he has 128 wins from 542 dirt starts while securing 264 victories from 1,058 starts on the turf courses. In stakes, Pletcher has 76 wins on dirt and 27 on turf. Brown has 25 stakes win on dirt and 65 on grass.
Pletcher said that Brown might have the upper hand entering the season and said that he checks the standings that the New York Racing Association publishes during the 40-day meet.
“Oh, yeah. You've got to watch the scoreboard,” he said. “That's part of the fun. If you didn't do that you wouldn't care at all. Chad has built a very, very powerful stable. Saratoga is his hometown and he loves to win there. Looking at the situation right now, he's going to be very difficult to beat, for sure.”
Brown has always acknowledged that his success at Saratoga has been vitally important for his career and has said that winning GI Travers S. would be more personally satisfying for him than a victory in the GI Kentucky Derby. After initially being turned down for stalls in 2008, he won with the first horse he saddled at Saratoga in the first race on opening day. He said the six wins from 18 starts that summer gave him credibility and brought him new clients.
Entering this meet he is second to Steve Asmussen in 2022 earnings with $14.9 million, has GI Preakness S. winner Early Voting (Gun Runner) in his career-best group of 3-year-old colts, a slew of graded stakes winners and comes in from the impressive Belmont Park performance. Long the pursuer of Pletcher at the meet, Brown smiled and agreed that he is now the one being pursued, but said it will be a challenge to repeat after claiming his seventh-straight Belmont crown.
“It's hard to sustain,” he said. “I think you'll see last year we had a big Belmont meet, might not have broke the record, but a big Belmont meet. And then we started off Saratoga a little slow, we won some races, we had some stakes and stuff, but, really, we picked up the second half of the meet and we had a couple of huge days in that last third of the meet. Then we really ended up being strong and in front. I could see similar. I have some nice races marked early in the meet, but it's so hard to sustain this because you have to keep the horses in good form, you have to keep them healthy. When you win this many races, you're moving out of conditions, right? So you're moving up in class. Every horse, that won is going to go up now and the races are going to get harder. When you move up a class, move into a more difficult meet and moving up in class for the first time those races can be difficult for those horses.”
Brown said that while he aims for Saratoga, he did not pump the brakes at Belmont.
“I went all in at Belmont because, the old saying is 'you make hay when the sun shining,'” he said. “And when you're on the turf, and it's firm, and the races are going and the horses are healthy you run because the purses are very good at Belmont. They're not as high as these record purses that are going to be offered at Saratoga in all these conditions. This is amazing. And it's great for all the horsemen and our clients that pay all the bills.”
Since his initial championship 24 years ago, Pletcher has never been worse than third at Saratoga. He has been the runner-up seven times. He arrives at this meet ranked third in the national standings for earnings at $14.4 million. Like Brown, he saddled a Triple Crown series winner, Mo Donegal (Uncle Mo), the GI Belmont S. champ, who is injured and won't run at Saratoga. The Hall of Famer, who is the sport's leading career money winner, said he is still interested in winning the Spa meet.
“It's always fun to compete at Saratoga. It certainly means something,” he said. “I wouldn't say it means quite the same as the first one did. That one was extra special and unexpected in a lot of ways. Wouldn't have anticipated that could happen the third year there.
“I've always said, I have a great appreciation for how difficult it is to win at Saratoga. And we don't take anything for granted. As always, a lot of our success will depend on how our 2-year-olds run. I feel like we have a nice group, but I'm not positive that a lot of them are July types, probably more like mid- to late-August or even September, October types. We'll just have to see how they pan out.”
Even with Mo Donegal on the sidelines, Pletcher has a strong bench of stakes runners. In the last two weeks at Belmont he won the GII Suburban with Dynamic One (Union Rags), the GIII Dwyer S. with Charge It (Tapit) the GII John Nerud S. with Life is Good (Into Mischief), the Manila S. with Annapolis (War Front) and the Perfect Sting S. with Jouster (Noble Mission). In addition, he now trains Corniche, last year's 2-year-old champion, who is expected to make his first start for Pletcher at Saratoga.
“I obviously love the way July started out for us,” he said. “It's always good when you have the quality of horses that we ran and we've got some big targets of Saratoga so that that's exciting.”