D. Wayne Lukas smiled down from his stable pony the morning after the Kentucky Derby. He glanced over at Churchill Downs’ Barn 40, where cameras and notebooks surrounded Todd Pletcher, his “adopted son.”
Twelve hours earlier, Always Dreaming gave Pletcher his second Derby win, which thrilled Lukas. “It’s been a long time since I was so excited about a race I wasn’t in,” the Hall of Famer said.
Lukas, 81, and Pletcher’s father, J.J., have been friends since they trained quarter horses in the Sixties throughout the Southwest. Pletcher was born in 1967, and Lukas has known Todd since he was a toddler. In 1989, after graduating the University of Arizona, Pletcher became his employee.
“Going to work for Wayne was how I started my career,” Pletcher said Thursday. “Even though I had been around horses my whole life and had worked for my dad and Charlie Whittingham and some other trainers, I learned so much just from watching how Wayne did things. Just picking up the general workings of how to run a barn and a stable and the basics of training.
“Wayne is a terrific conditioner, a terrific caretaker, very detail-oriented, very organized and a great judge of horses. Just seeing how he ran an organization taught me so much.”
Pletcher rose through the ranks and became one of Lukas’ top assistants. Leaving the nest at 28 in December 1995 wasn’t easy, but if you want to make your mark in the world, sometimes you have to dynamite yourself out of your comfort zone.
“It was very intimidating to go out on my own when I did,” Pletcher said. “It was a tough decision to make, because Wayne had probably the strongest barn in the world at that time.”
Six months before, Lukas swept the Triple Crown with two horses, a first. Thunder Gulch took the Derby and the Belmont, and Timber Country won the Preakness, extending Lukas’ streak to five dating to Tabasco Cat’s 1994 Preakness and Belmont.
Pletcher had no delusions of grandeur as he scrambled to put together a stable during that anxiety-filled winter in South Florida. “I was just hoping to accumulate enough horses and establish a reputation,” he said. He had to wait a month for his first winner, named, perhaps prophetically, Majestic Number.
His numbers guarantee he’ll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when he’s eligible in 2021. He has seven Eclipse Awards and 4,304 wins, including 1,074 stakes through Friday. He surpassed Lukas as the all-time leader in purse earnings ($338.8 million) and trained 10 divisional champions.
Pletcher said he didn’t set out to be this big, supervising a multi-track stable with sometimes 175 horses. Someone once asked him about 20 of them, and she said that off the top of his head the thoroughbred CEO detailed the last race, last workout and plans for each one.
“I didn’t really anticipate what it would grow into,” he said. “Along the way it just sort of evolved.”
Evolution? More like intelligent design.
There are two Lukas records Pletcher isn’t near: 14 Triple Crown wins and 20 in the Breeders’ Cup (Pletcher has nine. No matter how big you are, it’s nice to still have goals.
Super Saver gave Pletcher his first Derby trophy in 2010, and he has two Belmonts — Rags to Riches (2007) and Palace Malice (2013). He easily could have won four Belmonts, losing photos in 2014 and 2016.
Pletcher is 0-for-8 in the Preakness, in which Always Dreaming will be heavily favored Saturday after dominating the Derby by 2¾ lengths. Oddly, Super Saver wasn’t one of Pletcher’s many stars. He liked Churchill’s wet track, and Calvin Borel gave him a beautiful ride. He never won again and was retired that October. Unlike Always Dreaming, Pletcher said Super Saver wasn’t on his game going into the Preakness, and he ran eighth.
“Always Dreaming continues to show us all the positive signals we’re looking for,’’ he said Friday. “He’s full of himself, feeling great. Coming back from the Derby, your biggest concern is trying to repeat a top performance in 14 days. Based off the strength of his race and the way he seems to have come out of it, we’re really happy.”