Pletcher calls mentor
Lukas greatest of all time

Nov 14, 2006 4:02 AM

Todd Pletcher started a record 17 horses in the 23rd Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs on Nov. 4, Wayne Lukas only one. Neither trainer won a race, but that’s not the story here. It’s that Pletcher did not forget where he came from, nor will he, despite the fact that Lukas, his one-time mentor, is in the twilight of a Hall of Fame career that raised the bar to unprecedented heights.

Since moving from quarter horses to thoroughbreds in 1978, Lukas set so many records his biography takes up more than five pages in Hollywood Park’s comprehensive media guide. His more prominent achievements include 24 national champions, 48 training titles, 13 Triple Crown victories, including a record six in a row; four Kentucky Derby winners, and a since-eclipsed national earnings mark of nearly $18 million in 1988.

Pletcher shattered the existing record this year with more than $26 million and counting. For the first time in years, Lukas will not bring a stable to Santa Anita this winter, citing economics. "I don’t have the clientele base I had in the 1980s," Lukas told me more than a year ago, referring to owners such as the late Gene Klein and William Young, who raced as Overbrook Farm. When Bob Lewis died on Feb. 17 of this year, Lukas lost another deep-pocketed patron, for whom he won the Kentucky Derby in 1999 with Charismatic.

Pletcher, who graduated from the University of Arizona in 1989 with a degree in Animal Science, worked for Lukas for 6½ years before going on his own in 1996. He gleaned so much gold from the treasure chest of Lukas, now 70, Pletcher could not focus on one nugget.

"There are probably too many things to pinpoint and describe in one way," he said. "But I think Wayne’s the greatest of all time and what he’s done in this game is unparalleled, in my eyes. Hopefully, I’ve had some success by following a program similar to his."

Has he ever. Even though he drew a blank on Breeders’ Cup day, the 39-year-old Pletcher maintained his emotional equilibrium, as always, and looked at the big picture. (Even though he tossed a Breeders’ Cup shutout, you read it here first that he will win the Eclipse Award as outstanding trainer).

"We’ve had a great year," the Dallas native said. "We’ll live to fight again."

As will Doug O’Neill, who despite a disappointing seventh by Lava Man in the Classic, enjoyed a 15-1 surprise with Thor’s Echo in the Sprint. Pletcher and O’Neill, by the way, are one-two among trainers on the national earnings list with more than $26 million and $10 million, respectively.

"It’s great to be home," the 38-year-old O’Neill said in the warm clime of Southern California after piling up frequent flier mileage between LAX and Kentucky. "We had the time of our lives in Kentucky. We hung out a lot with the owners and my family. My wife Linette’s uncle, Lupe, is a real cowboy and he has a 200-acre farm in Kentucky. I went riding there with him and got to experience that life, so we had a great time."

Thor’s Echo became only the second California-bred to win a Breeders’ Cup race (Tiznow won the Classic twice), and his overpowering four-length victory caught O’Neill by surprise.

"You never expect any horse to run that well," said the native of Dearborn, Mich. "You always hope they do, but you never expect it. He trained great and he ran huge against Bordonaro (second in the Grade I Ancient Title) and I think that race told us Thor’s Echo was back. Hindsight is always 20-20, but I really thought he’d run huge. I was disappointed with Areyoutalkintome. I thought he’d at least hit the board (the other O’Neill trainee finished 13th of 14 at 55-1 in the Sprint, ahead of only 8-5 favorite Henny Hughes, who was retired after the race).

"But Areyoutalkintome was just slipping and sliding. If a horse was in the middle of the track that day, it just wasn’t getting a hold of it. There definitely was an inside bias (four horses from post position No. 1 won Breeders’ Cup races on the main track). Even horses who swung wide turning for home hugged the rail down the backside, so being on the rail definitely helped.

"Invasor (the Classic winner, who broke from No. 11) saved ground all the way down the backside where I heard it was like running over concrete on the rail. Then he made his run late, but it definitely was an advantage."

The homestretch:

Pletcher’s first Hollywood Park contingent of 11 horses arrived late last week. The trainer said he expects to be on hand "sometime after Thanksgiving." Pletcher said Juvenile Fillies runner-up Octave and third-place finisher Cotton Blossom would not race again this year, nor would Juvenile runner-up Circular Quay and fourth-place finisher Scat Daddy, but added they were "all in good shape." Monmouth Oaks winner Mo Cuishle is aiming for the Grade II Top Flight Handicap at Aqueduct on Nov. 24.

”¡ Lane’s End Futurity winner Great Hunter, third in the Juvenile, also is unlikely to run again this year. "I’m pretty certain we’re going to put him on the shelf until the first of the year and gear towards next year’s classics," said O’Neill, who added that Thor’s Echo is training on Keeneland’s Polytrack for the Grade I DeFrancis Dash at Laurel on Nov. 25.

”¡ O’Neill on Hollywood’s Cushion Track: "As trainers, we always look for things to complain about, but it’s OK and Dennis Moore (track surface consultant) has admitted it’s going to be trial and error until he gets used to maintaining it for racing. But I’m in his corner and it still beats the hell out of the old conventional dirt track."

”¡ The Padres saved money when they hired Bud Black as manager to replace Bruce Bochy. They won’t have to order new monogrammed towels for the skipper.

”¡ True story on how society has "dumbed" down: I picked up the red "help" phone at Target and asked if they had dominoes, the ageless tile game. "We don’t have Domino’s," the girl answered. "Only Pizza Hut."