The slender 13-year-old smiled to himself as he slowly rode the stable pony behind the old gray barn. It was 9:30, and five hours of morning chores for his father were done, but he was in no hurry to leave. He looked as if he wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else.
Payton Pletcher, who attends Garden City Middle School, has grown up being photographed in the winner's circle with his famous father, thoroughbred trainer Todd Pletcher. When he was an infant, his grandfather, trainer J.J. Pletcher, named his new Payton Training Center in Ocala, Fla., for him. Racing is in Payton's blood, and he's already taken his first steps down a career path. "I'd like to train racehorses," he said.
At 13, that was Todd Pletcher's dream, too. "In a lot of ways, it was identical to what Payton's doing," said Pletcher, 45, and a longtime Garden City resident based at Belmont Park. "You're riding a pony, feeding horses, and don't even realize you're learning."
Still, Pletcher, concerned about the demanding lifestyle of a trainer, has "mixed emotions" about his firstborn's desire to emulate him. He said his wife, Tracy, is "excited about it because in some ways it makes us a closer family."
"I think it's terrific Payton has an interest and a passion for it," Pletcher said. "Racing's been very good for my entire family, but it's a lifestyle that takes a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, year-round total commitment. I've been impressed by his commitment, and I'm proud of him for that. Up here he gets up every day at 4 just like me and never complains. He's doing the basics properly, learning from the ground up."
Payton plays midfield and forward in soccer and prefers setting up a goal to scoring. "I like to assist," he said. And not just on the soccer field.
The boy's ideal summer
At 4:30 a.m., Payton and Todd arrive at his barn at the Saratoga harness track, where Todd inspects horses as Payton jogs them while holding a leather strip called a shank. By 5:30 they're at Saratoga Race Course's Barn 62. Leading around feisty, 1,000-pound thoroughbreds in circles and picking mud from their hooves may not sound exciting, but Payton revels in the routine.
"I love everything about it," he said. "It's fun coming to the barn with my dad and watching the horses train. I like going to the sales and looking at horses and picking up little things about them."
J.J., 74, joked, "It's hard to get away from the horse business. It's like a disease."
Apparently, it can be in their DNA. J.J. caught the bug at 7 and transmitted it to Todd, who passed it on. Even Kirby, the family dog, has a racing connection. He's a Cavalier King Charles spaniel, favorite pet of King Charles II, who in the 1660s rode winners in England.
J.J.'s father, a minister, had a ranch in Texas. A calf-roping uncle, Bob Beagle, owned quarter horses, J.J.'s introduction to the breed he trained from 1962 to 1977. Todd grew up on the backstretches of Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico, Oaklawn Park in Arkansas and Ak-Sar-Ben in Nebraska.
"Todd's been doing this since he was 5," J.J. said. "We raised him around the racetrack. Except for school, he was with my horses all the time. He didn't spend much time at the beach."
After high school in San Antonio, Todd entered the University of Arizona's noted racetrack industry program. "When Todd was 12, I told him, 'You can do anything you want, but you have to get a college education.' I've always wished I'd gotten one."
After graduating in 1989, he began a six-year stint as Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas' assistant. "Wayne was a great influence, a great organizer and motivator," J.J. said. "Todd had a great background, and I want the same for Payton."
So does Todd. "I haven't pressured him to do it," he said, "but I won't discourage him, either. But like my father did, I'll insist he has a college education, just like I will with my other children."
Aiming to take the reins
Payton said he's thought about attending Arizona. He said his dad's stature dawned on him at "9 or 10, when I started to know about all the big races he'd won."
Two years ago, Super Saver gave Todd his first Kentucky Derby trophy. "That's when I really realized it," said Payton, who with siblings Kyle, 12, and Hannah, 9, got the celebrity treatment from classmates. "That was great, everybody saying how cool it was that your dad won the Derby."
The next year, Todd finished 12th with Stay Thirsty. "The kids were asking how come my dad didn't win again or couldn't at least finish second or third," Payton said. "They don't understand how hard it is to win those races."
Few challenges are greater than entering the same profession as a successful parent. "Some guys might think they can ride their father's coattails," Todd said, "but Payton knows he'll have to work for it."
Payton's 61/2 weeks in horse heaven will end after Labor Day, when he will begin eighth grade. "Summer here is so great," he said, "and I don't have to think about homework."
The Pletcher patriarch is thrilled his grandson wants to continue the family tradition.
"He has pretty close to the same personality as Todd," J.J. said. "He likes people, and people like him. My farm will be his someday, if he wants it."
Residence: Garden City
Family: wife, Tracy; sons, Payton, Kyle; daughter, Hannah
Favorite NFL team: Cowboys
Career achievements: Kentucky Derby, Super Saver (2010); Belmont Stakes, Rags to Riches (2007); five Eclipse Awards as nation's leading trainer; trained nine national champions.