There they were in the Aqueduct winner’s circle. Owner Mike Repole and trainer Todd Pletcher embraced. It couldn’t accurately be described as a full-on hug. It was more like a half-handshake, half-hug. It was initiated by Repole, clearly the more fired up of the triumphant pair. Make no mistake, though. The notoriously buttoned-down Pletcher was an active participant in this embrace. For the most fleeting of moments, Todd Pletcher let his guard down. A smile was clearly visible on his face.
Mike Repole has helped change the way Todd Pletcher does business.
And, from the looks of things, the charismatic Vitamin Water magnate’s extroverted persona just might be rubbing off, if only slightly, on the stoic horseman.
After mugging for some celebratory winner’s circle photos, they strode over to meet the waiting press corps.
Mike Repole appeared to be in his glory, totally at home as he held court with the media. But the jarring takeaway was that Todd Pletcher seemed to be too.
And why shouldn‘t he be? Five days removed from his fifth Eclipse Award as the nation’s Outstanding Trainer, and minutes removed from capturing New York’s first graded stake of 2011-the grade 3 Toboggan Stakes- there wasn’t much of a reason for Todd Pletcher not to be in his glory also.
They each took a breath. Their faces seemed to say: Go ahead, ladies and gents. Fire away.
The horse racing world, at least for the foreseeable future, appears to be theirs.
Calibrachoa, the horse that brought Pletcher up from the much friendlier climate of South Florida, is a prime example of the effect that Mike Repole has had on his barn. Two starts back, Repole claimed Calibrachoa, a four year-old son of Southern Image, and turned him over to Pletcher. This was a noteworthy event because Todd Pletcher is not known to train many claimers.
In Pletcher’s mind, though, he wasn’t claiming “a claimer.” He believed that he was claiming a stakes horse. This was evidenced by the fact that the first start Calibrachoa made for Repole/Pletcher was in a stakes race, the $65,000 Gravesend Stakes, back on December 18th.
His belief in Calibrachoa was immediately justified, as he crossed the wire first in the Gravesend, scoring by 1½ lengths over stablemate Driven By Success. That day, Calibrachoa showed a new dimension, in winning from off the pace. He’d previously done most of his running on the front end. But the triple digit Beyer speed figure he earned that day seemed to suggest that maybe this new style better suited him.
With that being the case, Pletcher couldn’t have been happy watching the early portion of Saturday’s card.
The effects of the oft-talked about Aqueduct “golden rail” are, on many occasions, quite exaggerated. Those who follow the inner-dirt meet with some measure of regularity know that the track plays pretty fairly, for the most part.
But just when you start to dismiss the idea of the golden rail as total myth, along comes a day like Saturday.
Seven races. Seven front running winners.
It seemed like closers stood as much of a chance of winning races at Aqueduct on Saturday as Richard Nixon did of winning Illinois in 1960. This figured to be problematic for Calibrachoa. Pletcher and jockey Ramon Dominguez were faced with a dilemma. Should they send Calibrachoa to the front, and risk a suicidal dual with uncontrollable speedball Fastus Cactus? Or should they rate him, knowing that the track bias could prove too much to overcome?
“No,” Pletcher said simply, when asked by Horse Racing Nation if the track bias caused him to rethink tactics. “We were going to stalk.”
And stalk they did, sitting third for much of the race. Dominguez began to ask Calibrachoa for run as they hit the quarter pole. He made up a little ground with each stride, but was being carried to the outside by the awkward frontrunner Fastus Cactus, who was very hard to control and kept drifting.
“I was a little concerned because (Fastus Cactus) has been known to get out pretty badly in the past,” the winning jockey remarked. “But I thought Jose (Espinoza, rider of Fastus Cactus) did a good job last time, and today he was very manageable, too.”
Calibrachoa finally struck the front (a feat that must be considered nothing short of Herculean, given the track bias) just short of the wire. He held off a challenge from the gutsy Independence War, and took the Toboggan by one half-length, covering the six furlongs in 1:09.74
Dominguez was impressed.
“I really have to give my horse a lot of credit. I thought that I was beat,” Dominguez admitted. “I felt like I was all out and that they were closing on me, but when my horse felt the horse on the inside [Independence War] he went on again and showed a lot of courage.”
“I thought it was a pretty courageous effort,“ said Pletcher. “(Calibrachoa) has now run three really fast races in a row, and anytime you run as fast as he did last time you’re concerned coming back. I don’t think this was as good of a performance as his last, but he was able to dig down and find more.”
Already, Calibrachoa has proven an astute claim, having earned $99,000 in his two starts for Repole Stable, $59,000 more than the price for which he was purchased.
Makes you wonder if we’ll see more of Todd Pletcher at the claiming box.
So they answered the questions as they came. There weren’t many. It’s pretty hard to interrogate two men who have done so much right of late. It came as something of a shock, though, when Repole reminded the press of his previously dismal record in graded stakes.
“I was 0-for-27 in graded stakes,” Repole noted. “Now, I’m like three for (my last) four.”
This was surprising. Given the magnitude of Repole’s success lately, it feels like he’s been a part of the fabric of the New York racing scene for so much longer than the brief time he actually has.
“It feels good because this is my first graded stakes win outside of Uncle Mo.”
Ah yes, Uncle Mo. The newly minted champion two year-old male has a way of surfacing in conversations with Repole and Pletcher these days. People can’t stop talking about Uncle Mo, and speculating as to the wondrous possibilities that await him this spring.
If all goes according to plan, Repole and Pletcher will return to the Big A winner’s circle a little over two months from now, as they have already made known their intentions to bring Uncle Mo up to Queens to contest the Wood Memorial. Repole, a native New Yorker, has made no secret of his desire to capture the hometown Kentucky Derby prep.
A lot can happen between January 22nd and May 7th. Todd Pletcher can speak to this just as well as anyone. Just last year, he lost the uber-talented Eskendereya just prior to the Derby, before going on to win it with the comparatively unheralded Super Saver.
On Saturday, though, Repole and Pletcher seemed unconcerned with any of that. They were simply basking in the glow of their latest conquest.
And they were savoring the ‘Mo’ment.
*Photo courtesy of Adam Coglianese/NYRA