SARATOGA SPRINGS - Todd Pletcher is cruising toward his third consecutive training title at Saratoga and ninth overall. The 45-year-old native of Dallas entered Sunday’s card leading runner-up Chad Brown by eight wins, 29-21.
Pletcher’s first mentor was his father, J.J., a former trainer of quarter horses and thoroughbreds who for the past 13 years has owned and operated Payton Training Center in Ocala, Fla. The facility specializes in breaking yearlings, getting them used to having a saddle, and eventually a rider, on their back. J.J. and his staff have worked with many of Todd’s young horses, helping to develop 2007 Breeders’ Cup Turf champion English Channel and promising young sire Scat Daddy.
“I started it to help Todd,’’ J.J. said recently on Saratoga’s backstretch, “and it turned out that he’s helping me.’’
Todd Pletcher’s second most important mentor was D. Wayne Lukas. They first crossed paths in 1969 at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico, where J.J. and Lukas were training quarter horses. “Wayne knew Todd when he was two years old,’’ J.J. said. After Todd graduated with a degree in animal science from the University of Arizona in 1989, he began a 6½-year stint as one of Lukas’ assistants. In early 1996, Pletcher went out on his own, and he’ll be a sure thing to join Lukas in the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible in nine years.
Lukas changed the sport because he was the first trainer to act as a CEO, supervising multiple stables around the country and flying in horses from all over for stakes races. He is famed for organizational skills, which Todd Pletcher uses to supervise approximately 175 horses currently stabled at Saratoga, Belmont Park, Monmouth Park and Delaware Park. During the winter, Pletcher is based in South Florida, where he has barns at Gulfstream Park and Palm Meadows, a training center.
Long before Lukas, 76, became world famous for his dominance of the Triple Crown – four Kentucky Derby wins, plus five in the Preakness and four in the Belmont Stakes -- and the Breeders’ Cup (18 wins), he stood out for his fastidiousness at Ruidoso. More than 40 years ago, the notorious neat freak made an impression among his competitors on the backstretch.
“We called him Mr. Clean,’’ J.J. said with a smile. “Wayne even had plastic flowers at his barn, and now he’s got the real thing. I knew him back when he had plastic flowers.’’
Star fillies meet in Personal Ensign
Standout 4-year-old fillies Royal Delta and It’s Tricky renew their rivalry Sunday at Saratoga in the Grade I, 1 1/8-mile Personal Ensign Handicap. It will be their fourth meeting and first in 2012. Last year Royal Delta finished third to It’s Tricky in the Coaching Club American Oaks before winning the Alabama Stakes and the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic, which locked up the 3-year-old filly Eclipse Award.
Royal Delta is the 4-5 morning-line favorite, with It’s Tricky next at 2-1 in the field of six. After finishing ninth against males March 31 in the Grade I Dubai World Cup, Royal Delta won her last two, the Grade II Fleur de Lis in June at Churchill Downs and the Grade II Delaware Handicap last month at Delaware Park.
“She’s proven in the past that she can run over this racetrack,’’ trainer Bill Mott said. “She’s highweight, and I suppose she deserves to be.’’ Royal Delta will carry 124 pounds, 1 more than It’s Tricky.
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin scratched It’s Tricky from Friday’s Grade I, 7-furlong Ballerina here, opting to face Royal Delta instead of Ballerina winner Turbulent Descent.
“It was definitely a jump ball,’’ McLaughlin said. “It wasn’t so cut and dried. After looking at both entries and past performances, it was a tougher decision than one might think.
“We have her coming back at 1 1/8 miles, and she hasn’t raced in three months. Hopefully, we’ll have her tight enough. She’s training well and coming into the race in great shape. We’re ready to go.’’
Midsummer Derby fever
People upstate treat the Travers as if it’s their Kentucky Derby, with parties going on all weekend. Shortly after sunrise Saturday, the passion for the 143rd Travers was visible. Saratoga’s gates opened at 7 a.m., more than 4½ hours before the 11:35 a.m. post for the opener of a 13-race card. At 6:30, the line stretched a couple of blocks down Union Avenue.