Todd Pletcher knows that the world regards him as some kind of horse training android.
It doesn't matter that he fell in love with racing as a young boy in Texas, tending to horses trained by his encouraging father, J.J.
It doesn't matter that he's a family man who had his eldest son, Payton, by his side the first time he walked Kentucky Derby champion Always Dreaming to the track at Pimlico Race Course in preparation for the Preakness.
The man living out his boyhood ambitions or the middle-aged dad nudging his son to attend veterinary school might make excellent characters in someone else's success story. But Pletcher — a private soul despite his status as the most decorated trainer of his generation — has chosen a different narrative.
He isn't gruff or wry or combative or folksy or any of the words we associate with the giants who preceded him in the training game.
What he is — whether he's accommodating rich and powerful owners, answering media queries or supervising an operation that extends up and down the East Coast — is professional. Absolutely, unrelentingly professional.
Pletcher's reserved persona is as much a deliberate choice as every other detail of his business, which he's run from a makeshift office beside Always Dreaming's stall at Pimlico for the last week.
"I don't think I'm as emotionless as I'm accused of being at times," the 49-year-old New York resident says. "But at the same time, it's a competitive business, and you don't want to gloat too much when you win or cry too much when you lose, at least not in public."
And if that's not an approach that inspires poetic reveries, so be it. It works awfully well in keeping the winningest machine in the sport on the rails.
Pletcher-trained horses start between 800 and 1,200 times a year, win about a quarter of their races and finish in the top three more than half the time. He's achieved those results with numbing consistency — unmatched by rivals such as Bob Baffert or Steve Asmussen — for 15 years.
Not many holes in the resume
Despite his seven Eclipse Awards for Top Trainer and a career earnings mark that now stands north of $338 million, skeptics love to nitpick Pletcher's resume. He's the LeBron James of the thoroughbred training world. For years, the black mark of choice was his Derby record, which stood at 1-for-45 entering this year's race.
Friends and colleagues never thought the line of criticism was fair.
"I felt bad for him," says trainer George Weaver, who worked for Pletcher when he was building his empire. "So many of the horses he led over there [for the Derby] were very simply not the best horse. And quite frankly, he's led horses over there that weren't even close, but they ran lights out. They finished second or third or fourth when they really shouldn't have, and it was just the job he did that got them there at all."
Always Dreaming helped quiet that particular line of criticism May 6, and Pletcher spilled rare and grateful tears afterward. Now he's on to another place where he has not thrived.
The Preakness is one of the few major American races Pletcher has not won. He's 0-for-8 and is probably better known for skipping the second jewel of the Triple Crown series than for his results in it. But he says his supposed aversion to Pimlico is misunderstood.
"The main reason is it always felt like our horses needed a little extra time after the Derby, and Belmont's our home base. It's a race we kind of covet," he says. "So most of our focus has been on the Belmont. It's not a slight on the Preakness. It's just that we always felt it was an advantage for us to go home and get the five weeks off. That's been really more it."
Even with a horse as gifted and energetic as Always Dreaming, Pletcher will say only he's "as comfortable as I can be" with the two-week turnaround from the Derby.
He's a proud creature of routine, and the Triple Crown calendar does not quite compute with his training rhythms, even though he reveres the history of it.
Lessons learned, imparted
Pletcher learned his Tao of consistency as an assistant to Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, regarded by many as the greatest innovator of the modern "super-barn." Pletcher, who apprenticed himself to the best trainers in the sport at his father's urging, did not know he wanted to run a massive operation until Lukas showed him it was possible.
"He pioneered it to a different level," Pletcher says. "Wayne opened that possibility up."
With his white Stetson cowboy hat and periodically testy nature, Lukas cut a different figure than Pletcher, who looks like he could fit right in at an investment bank with his close-cropped silver hair and tasteful glasses.
But fundamentally, the men share many traits.
"There's so many things," Pletcher says when asked what he learned from the master. "But I think his organization, his attention to detail and just his work ethic. Even today, he's one of the first guys there and still puts in the hours. He's got a tremendous ability to stay steady. There's a lot of downs in this game, but he's a very resilient person, always upbeat, optimistic and at work early the next morning."
In fact, Lukas, now 81, was among the first people to enter Pletcher's barn to offer congratulations the morning after Always Dreaming won the Derby. He said he'd been up whooping and hollering for his protege's horse.
Pletcher gleaned just as much, maybe more, from Lukas' late son, Jeff, who was his immediate boss from 1989 to 1992.
"He was very strict, very demanding, and it brought you to a higher level," Pletcher says. "You needed to be on top of everything all the time. Those first three years under Jeff were my baptism for sure."
Weaver first met Pletcher in those years.
"He did everything right," he recalls. "You see some people mess up or go party or come in late. He never made a mistake. He was always dedicated to what he was doing and always focused on where he wanted to go. He was a good model for me to watch."
Pletcher went on his own in 1995, starting with a mere seven horses. But given his meticulous nature and his Lukas pedigree, no one who knew him was terribly surprised when he built his next-generation version of the mega-barn.
If you're a titan of industry and you put your very expensive horse in Pletcher's hands, you know exactly what you're getting — from the close-to-the-pace running style right down to the TAP logo in Old English font. Every day at 10 a.m., no matter where he is, he gets on the phone with each of his assistant trainers and goes over the individual plans for each and every horse in the operation.
"It's a routine, and I think people and horses like a routine," he says, giving a glimpse inside his well-ordered soul.
It's exceedingly rare for an owner to express dissatisfaction with Pletcher's work. He learned the art of serving clients under Lukas, who delegated entire strings of gifted horses — and their connections — to his top assistants.
Weaver says that's why so many who worked under Lukas — from Pletcher to Kiaran McLaughlin to Dallas Stewart — have gone on to independent success.
"There was just a certain way to run your show and represent yourself to the owners," he says. "When we were in Wayne's barn, all of us had a chance to learn that. He wanted you to speak well to the owners. We understood that training horses was only a part of it."
There's no magic to keeping so many plates spinning, Pletcher says. He's simply willing to give 365 days a year to delivering a reliable product and to understanding the quirks of each owner.
"It's something you've got to work at, basically," he says." Some need a lot of attention. They need to speak on a daily basis. Others are satisfied with a weekly email. ... There are certain times of year when we might be operating at three locations, but I think each owner is comfortable with the fact I know exactly what's going on with each horse every day."
Preparing Always Dreaming
Vinnie Viola and Anthony Bonomo, the majority owners of Always Dreaming, say they share an almost telepathic wavelength with Pletcher.
"He is the consummate professional," Bonomo says. "He's business. But he has a personality that, until you really get to know him, he's just a gentleman. Forget about his talent with horses. But as a human being, he's great. You can ask him anything you want even when he probably doesn't want us to ask anything, because I know we're probably annoying Italians."
Focus too much on Pletcher's talents as a CEO, and you overlook his resourcefulness as a horseman, a side he demonstrated powerfully with his handling of Always Dreaming. When the horse first came to him in September, with two losses in two career starts under previous trainer Dominick Schettino, Pletcher decided to take a step back. He sent Always Dreaming to Jim Crupi, the same Florida trainer who'd worked with him as a yearling. He did not bring him back to the track for five months, and then only in a maiden special.
Pletcher skipped the March 4 Fountain of Youth Stakes, packed with Kentucky Derby hopefuls, for a less competitive race on the same card. So by the time Always Dreaming finally faced real competition in the April 1 Florida Derby, he was a sleeping monster.
Pletcher faced a different set of problems at Churchill Downs, where the colt was so eager to run that he seemed in danger of draining himself long before race day. Again, Pletcher called on his vast well of resources. He put the horse in draw reins, a piece of equipment that anchors to the girth and affords the rider more leverage. He also switched exercise riders, calling on Nick Bush, who'd worked with him for 10 years and had shown acumen for handling unruly mounts.
The strategies paid off in the colt's brilliant, career-defining victory.
That's perhaps the part of his craft Pletcher likes best. The people and the horses are lovely, but in the end, his theories are tested by cold, unforgiving competition.
"It's sort of a puzzle you're always trying to put together," he says. "And whatever work you do, the results are concrete. Your horse wins or he doesn't. You get a little bit of both — the beauty of the horse and the operation, but then at the end of the day, you also get to run a race and see if it worked."