Though success has followed him year-round across the globe since launching his training career in 1996, it’s safe to say that when the season turns to winter, Todd Pletcher’s name has become synonymous with South Florida and Gulfstream Park.
The 53-year-old Texas native has led the Championship Meet standings in 16 of the past 17 years, including a remarkable and unprecedented streak of 15 consecutive titles beginning in 2004. After finishing second in 2018-2019, Pletcher reclaimed his crown with 48 wins last winter.
“You try to just focus on placing your horses properly and hoping they run well. I think when the streak was still intact it was perhaps a little more meaningful because if you have a streak going for that long the chances of ever duplicating that are pretty remote,” Pletcher said. “But, we’ll focus on doing the best we can without being overly concerned about whether or not that ends up leading to a meet title.
“The exciting part about it is, it’s kind of the time when a lot of your 2-year-olds are starting to come around and obviously turning three with a lot of big races coming up in the winter and spring, so we always look forward to that,” he added. “We’ve always enjoyed the Gulfstream meet. It’s been historically a good venue for us and horses seem to like the surface there and run well, so hopefully we can continue that.”
Pletcher has two horses entered on Wednesday’s 10-race program as he opens his title defense and quest for No. 17 during the 2020-2021 Championship Meet. The prestigious 84-day stand runs through Sunday, March 28 and features 75 stakes, 41 graded, worth $13.05 million in purses.
Michael Tabor’s Eagerly, a 3-year-old son of 2015 Triple Crown champion American Pharoah, will be making his sixth career start and first since Jan. 18 at Gulfstream in Race 5, a one-mile maiden special weight for 3-year-olds and up on the grass. Listed at 9-2 on the morning line, he will break from the far outside under Paco Lopez.
“Eagerly unfortunately got stepped on by another horse in his last start there and had a fairly significant wound that took a lot of time to heal and some skin grafts and that sort of thing,” Pletcher said. “He’s been training forwardly. All of his races except for an off the turf race and that particular day when he sustained that injury have all been good. We look forward to getting him back.”
In Wednesday’s Race 8 feature, Pletcher will send out Shadwell Stable’s homebred Ashaar, who hasn’t run since finishing seventh in the Jan. 4 Mucho Macho Man at Gulfstream for previous trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. The sophomore Into Mischief colt is the program’s 2-1 second choice in the six-furlong optional claiming allowance for 3-year-olds and up.
“Ashaar, I know that they liked him a lot, and he ran well in his debut. The thing that always concerns you in these types of races is when they have that optional claim on there, you’re kind of running into some old warriors that have a lot of starts compared to pretty lightly raced horse,” Pletcher said. “But we’re pleased with the way he’s been coming along and looking forward to getting him started.”
Pletcher has enjoyed several career-defining moments at Gulfstream Park. It is where he won his first race Jan. 26, 1996 with Majestic Number, his 3,000th with Spring Hill Farm Feb. 11, 2012 and 4,000th with Eagle Scout March 18, 2016. He received the last two of his record seven Eclipse Awards for 2013 and 2014 in ceremonies held at the Sport of Kings Theatre, and he is the only trainer since it was inaugurated in 1952 to win Gulfstream’s signature race – the Florida Derby – five times.
Over 1,100 of Pletcher’s more than 5,000 lifetime victories have come at Gulfstream, where he has maintained a presence throughout the calendar year since 2017. He broke Hall of Famer Bill Mott’s streak of six straight Championship Meet titles in 2010, and passed Arnold Winick’s total with his 13th in 2016.
Pletcher has won 849 races during the Championship Meet since 2004, an average of 49.9 wins per winter. In 2019-2020 he picked up graded triumphs with Sombeyay in the Canadian Turf (G3) and Social Paranoia in the Appleton (G3) and ranked second with $2,085,635 in purse earnings.
Another stakes winner for Pletcher last winter was Halladay, who would go on to capture the Fourstardave (G1) at Saratoga. He is being pointed to the $200,000 Fort Lauderdale (G2) at Gulfstream as a possible prep for the $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational (G1) Jan. 23.
Wertheimer and Frere’s undefeated homebred Happy Saver, who improved to 4-0 with his victory over older horses in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1), is among the horses that may also show up during the meet, as well as Spinster (G1) winner and Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) runner-up Valiance and multiple turf stakes winner Largent, both part-owned by Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners.
“Right now we’re pointing Halladay for the Fort Lauderdale which, if that were to go well, we’d kind of have an eye toward the Pegasus but we’ll see how he handles the mile and an eighth first,” Pletcher said. “We have him and Largent pointed for that. Valiance and Happy Saver and some of those are getting a bit of a break so if we do see them it would be toward the end of the meet.”
Pletcher has one horse, a 2-year-old English Channel colt named Turlough, entered on Thursday’s card in Race 7, a one-mile maiden claiming event for juveniles on the grass.
When he returns to South Florida with sights set on defending his Championship Meet riding title, jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. will have the opportunity to join some exclusive company.
Ortiz, 28, is coming off his second straight winter championship, leading the 2019-2020 Gulfstream Park standings with 115 wins and more than $5.8 million in purses earned. Only three jockeys in track history have led the rider standings three consecutive years, the most recent being Hall of Famer Javier Castellano’s record streak of five in a row from 2011-2016.
Jorge Chavez also won three straight between 1999 and 2001, while Jeff Fell shared the 1977 title with Mickey Solomone before winning it outright in 1978 and 1979. Among those with back-to-back championships are Hall of Famers Walter Blum, Alex Solis, Julie Krone and Jerry Bailey. Luis Saez won two in a row before finishing second to Ortiz each of the past two winters.
Ortiz has won the past two Eclipse Awards as champion jockey, trophies he accepted in ceremonies at Gulfstream Park, and is a leading candidate to win a third for 2020, a season abridged by the coronavirus pandemic. Through Nov. 28, Ortiz was leading all North American riders for a third consecutive year in both wins (274) and purse earnings ($20.1 million).
Since 2014, Ortiz has ranked no worse than fourth in wins or lower than third in purse earnings. He has won at least 300 races every year since 2015 with a high of 346 in 2018, and his $34.1 million in 2019 purses earned shattered the previous North American single-season record of $28.1 million set by Castellano in 2015.
One of just four jockeys to register triple digits in wins at Gulfstream, Ortiz won 135 races during his first full winter in 2018-2019, just two shy of Saez’s track record set the previous season. His biggest victory during the 2019-2020 stand came aboard Mucho Gusto in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational (G1).
Ortiz returns to South Florida after earning the Bill Shoemaker Award as the most outstanding jockey at the Breeders’ Cup for a third consecutive year. He won the Juvenile Turf Sprint (G1) with Golden Pal and Sprint (G1) with Whitmore, was second in the Classic (G1) on Improbable and third in the Dirt Mile (G1) aboard Sharp Samurai. Garrett Gomez, John Velazquez and Mike Smith are also three-time winners, but Ortiz is the first to win three straight since the award was launched in 2003.
Saez will have a head start for the 2020-2021 season with Ortiz under quarantine after riding at Del Mar over Thanksgiving weekend. Saez is named in 26 of 30 races over the first three days of the Championship Meet, including nine of 10 on Wednesday’s opening day and 10 of 10 on Thursday.
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