Racing: The man trusted with Magnier's biggest buy
Todd Pletcher tells Chris McGrath, in Dubai, of his excitement at taking charge of the world's most expensive racehorse
Friday 24 March 2006
Just how do you go about making $16m for an unraced horse look like money well spent? For the owners of the colt who last month shattered the thoroughbred auction record, the first step is easy: you send him to Todd Pletcher. The next part, according to another American trainer yesterday, is not quite so straightforward: "All that horse has to do now is run like Secretariat and get foals like Storm Cat."
Pletcher is here with the colt Magna Graduate in search of the richest prize ever offered on a racecourse: $3.6m (£2m) to the winner of the 11th Dubai World Cup. The youngster purchased by John Magnier and his partners could win this race four times without recovering their investment. Of course, the idea is that he will race for maybe 18 months before finding still more lucrative employment at stud. But few can imagine what he has to do on the track to be worth $16m (£9m) as a stallion.
"I don't know," Pletcher shrugged. "That'll be for everyone else to decide. Hopefully, he'll turn out to be a good horse. He's not in the barn yet, but I saw him at the sales and he was brilliant. His work was phenomenal, he seemed very professional, and they say back home in Kentucky that he has a great mind."
The colt was bought at a "breeze-up" sale in Florida where each lot is galloped over a furlong before the sale. He is by an emerging stallion in Forestry, but his dam condemns him to a relatively plain pedigree. The only reason Sheikh Mohammed forced Magnier so deep into uncharted territory - the old record of $13.1m had stood for two decades - was that he had "breezed" his furlong like a tornado in just 9.8 seconds.
His new owners have named him The Green Monkey, after a golf course in Barbados, but to a less icy competitor than Pletcher he might be The Green Albatross. As it is, he contemplates the project with composure. After all, this is the man who has taken just seven years to become the leading trainer in the United States. In 2004 he won two races at the Breeders' Cup. In 2005 he broke the annual prize-money record. He is still only 38, but Magnier and his partners know their gamble is in the coolest hands.
"They are the best; sensational to work for," Pletcher said. "They understand the game inside out, the ups and downs of it. They give you good horses like that to train and let you go. I figured I had a 50-50 chance of getting him. Their horses go to Patrick Biancone or myself. To watch the bidding was amazing - when you get up into that stratosphere . . ."
He broke off, shook his head and laughed. "It goes without saying you're going to pay this horse extra special attention, but at the same time you have to be aware that if you train him too carefully you'll never accomplish anything. In many ways you have to treat him the same as everything else. He can't go faster [than 9.8 seconds]. Hopefully, he can just keep going that fast."
Pletcher might apply the same aspiration to the momentum of his own career, having built so rapidly on the foundations he laid during seven years as assistant to Wayne Lukas. The nonpareil of American trainers has a genius for connecting with horses and people, but his teaching emphasises perspiration as much as inspiration - something that has rubbed off on Pletcher, a tall, powerful man with neat, cropped grey hair.
"It's a 24-hour day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year," he said. "That's the reality of it. You have to stay focused because every day is a new day and when you leave the barn at six in the afternoon, everything could be different the next morning. It's a constant challenge. I have a young family at home in New York - children aged seven, six and three. Being away so much makes it demanding.
"But all that's part of the deal. It's a labour of love, no question. There's no other way you could take that kind of schedule. The excitement is that the results are concrete. If what you are doing is working, then the results are evident at the races."
The breakthrough he craves is the same as his host this week, Sheikh Mohammed: the Kentucky Derby. Pletcher made a record entry this year and is shuffling his pack in the trials. "It's such a hard race to win," he said. "Even if I get lucky enough to win it some day, it'll still be the same thing. Every two-year-old that comes into the barn you'll always dream of turning into a Derby horse."
Pletcher's father trained quarter-horses but insisted he complete a college education before following him into a precarious vocation. Having grown up among them, Pletcher professes to an ease with horses that contrasts with the sobriety of his bearing. He brings none of his mentor's extrovert swagger to the backstretch of American racetracks, where communal facilities generate the atmosphere of a travelling circus.
"It's an interesting setting," he said. "You're living with the people you're competing against. I try to keep to myself, to keep my mouth shut. Every day's competitive, and that's what I like. I wake up every day worrying about how we're going to do today, as opposed to how we did yesterday."
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