Young man Pletcher hits
West as Santa Anita opens

Dec 19, 2006 3:39 AM

A lot of water has gone over the dam in the last 10 years. Through death or attrition, more than 20 trainers in Southern California, ranging from obscure to famous, have gone.

But life’s cycle moves ever onward. New seeds produce fresh oaks. One such arboreal newcomer is Todd Pletcher, the nation’s leading trainer this year with record earnings this year approaching $28 million.

A fixture on the East Coast since graduating from the Wayne Lukas school of training 10 years ago, for the first time the 39-year-old Pletcher has a sizeable stable on the West Coast at Hollywood Park.

Pletcher plans to race regularly from that base at Santa Anita when the Arcadia track opens the day after Christmas for its 70th season that runs through April 22. Whether he can surpass this year’s remarkable performance in 2007 remains to be seen.

"It’s been a great year," Pletcher said. "Hopefully, we can start fresh next year and try to do it again, but it will be a hard year to duplicate." Pletcher will train his horses on Hollywood’s synthetic Cushion Track, and ship from there to race at Santa Anita. "I don’t have anything for the Malibu (the Grade I feature on opening day), but I might run Somethinaboutbetty and Honey Rose in the Monrovia on Jan. 1," he said.

While trainers come and go, Santa Anita remains one of the game’s most historic and treasured venues. Racing Secretary Rick Hammerle is at the ready.

"When you have the nation’s leading trainer running horses at your meet on a regular basis, it sends a message throughout the industry that we’re doing the right thing in California," Hammerle said. "Todd’s a true professional in every sense of the word, as a trainer and as a person, and we’re glad to have his horses here."

Since Santa Anita revised its 3-year-old stakes program a couple years ago, it’s paid rapid dividends, and likely played a part in Pletcher’s decision to bring a division from his stable of nearly 200 horses to race in Southern California.

"We adjusted the stakes schedule for 3-year-olds in a more naturally progressive order," Hammerle said. "The Sham Stakes is graded for the second year in a row, and we’re offering more than $1.5 million in 3-year-old graded stakes money. That money is crucial in qualifying for the Kentucky Derby. Because Todd has so many good 3-year-olds, he’s able to send some here knowing he has several opportunities to run them and prepare for the Triple Crown races." More important than Pletcher’s high-profile presence, however, is the overall horse population for Santa Anita’s 85-day campaign. But Hammerle focused on an even more significant issue.

"Physically, we may have more horses this meet, but more importantly, the horses that are here are ready to run, as opposed to just taking up stall space."

And the picture should only improve once Del Mar and Santa Anita join Hollywood with synthetic main track surfaces by the end of next year.

"With trainers like Pletcher and Rick Dutrow leading the way in coming to Southern California, once the surfaces are installed, hopefully more stables will come west," Hammerle said. "But that’s in the future. Come Dec. 26, it’s the start of the racing year in Southern California and all systems are go."

The homestretch

Doug O’Neill is excited about running former Pletcher trainee Spring at Last in the Malibu. "Paul Reddam bought into him and he’s a really nice colt," O’Neill said. "He won real impressively in fast time in New York and we’re hoping for good things from him. He seems like the real deal." Corey Nakatani has the mount.

”¡ Pletcher said Minefield, impressive winner of his only two starts, has been bought by Godolphin. Soaring By, a stylish maiden winner last July, is at Palm Meadows in Florida. "I understand Minefield is going to Dubai," Pletcher said.

”¡ Oak Leaf Stakes winner Cash Included, fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, is set to resume training and could make her 2007 debut in the Grade II Santa Ynez Stakes at seven furlongs on Jan. 15, according to trainer Craig Dollase.

”¡ Jeff Mullins sees no difficulty in horses making the transition from Hollywood’s Cushion Track to Santa Anita’s traditional dirt course. "They’ve already proven they can do it during Oak Tree," Mullins said. "This shouldn’t be any different. I don’t think there’ll be any major adjustments."

”¡ I wouldn’t be surprised if books stopped putting out numbers on the Sixers and the Flyers. Not only can’t they win, they’re not even competitive. Neither team won a game last week and at press time were a combined 13-38 for a win percentage of .255. If the trend continues, the 76ers and the Flyers could total 100 losses and play before a half-empty Wachovia Center. Betting on them even as huge dogs would require an overdose of denial, sort of like believing ABBA’s music doesn’t have a hook.

”¡ Nothing against Jose Feliciano, but if I hear Feliz Navidad one more time.