ELMONT, N.Y. — Among the many things Todd Pletcher has mastered during a career that is destined for the Hall of Fame is the art of giving critics no emotional fodder.
Good luck getting him to flinch by bringing up his one win from 43 starters in the Kentucky Derby, or that some view his zero wins from seven starters in the Preakness Stakes as a weak point in his heralded program. He won't even deign to snap, especially not with a couple of his seven Eclipse Awards for Outstanding Trainer plugging his ears.
Bring up his recent mark in the final leg of the Triple Crown, however, and one may get a wry smile to appear. The track known as Big Sandy is his turf. And its signature 11/2-mile test has been the classic where he and his charges have unquestionably been their most dangerous.
The racing world is laid out before the feet of American Pharoah in advance of Saturday's 147th Belmont Stakes as he attempts to become the first horse since 1978 to sweep the Triple Crown. But the powerful hooves of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner will have to skip over Pletcher's domain to do so, and he'll have a couple representatives from the trainer's home-based armada to contend with.
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Grade I winner Materiality and Grade II victor Madefromlucky are each being sent out Saturday to try to keep a coronation from happening.
In the last nine runnings of the Belmont Stakes, Pletcher has two wins and four runner-up finishes including having Commissioner get beat a head at the wire by Tonalist after leading every prior step in last year's race. His rare display of fist pumping was inspired by the champion filly Rags to Riches defeating Curlin in the 2007 race — also Pletcher's first win in a Triple Crown test. And he about got emotional sitting alongside the venerable owner Cot Campbell after saddling Palace Malice to victory for longtime client Dogwood Stable in 2013.
Pletcher's strong track record in the 12-furlong "Test of the Champion" is no act of coincidence. Having at least five weeks off between starts is a hallmark of his training technique, hence the reason he routinely bypasses the Preakness Stakes with his Derby contenders.
His horses do their best running fresh and, if they get to run out of their own stalls over the surface they train every day over, all the better.
"It's our home track and it seems like our horses do well there," Pletcher said. "I think sometimes the additional time in between works well for them. For whatever reason it's been a pretty successful formula.
"Our results overall have been very good (in the Belmont), but we're kind of a length away from having won four or five of these."
He has a complementary pair this year in Materiality and Madefromlucky, the latter owning a win over the Belmont track in the Grade II Peter Pan Stakes and the former delivering a sneaky-good sixth-place effort in the Kentucky Derby.
Owned by Alto Racing and unraced at age 2, Materiality was the wunderkind of Pletcher's three Derby starters this year. The bay son of Afleet Alex won the Grade I Florida Derby in his third career start on March 28 but had his inexperience bite him on the first Saturday in May when he broke flat-footed and ended up shuffled back, sitting next to last at one point down the backstretch.
Despite being taken out of his usual front-running style and taking dirt in his face, Materiality still closed off tepid fractions.
"I think he kind of fell asleep in the gate and when they opened the gate, he didn't come out as sharp," said jockey Javier Castellano, who rode Materiality in the Derby but will be aboard Madefromlucky in the Belmont. "Then everybody came in on him and ... his reaction was kind of 'What's going on over here?'
"I know he got beat but he learned a lot. That was only the fourth time he'd run. He will improve in the Belmont and he's a fresh horse too."
John Velazquez, who rode Materiality in his first three wins, gets the call back aboard the colt when he breaks from post No. 8 Saturday. Castellano, however, has already made one trip to the Belmont winner's circle with Madefromlucky, guiding the son of Lookin At Lucky to his 1-length triumph in the Peter Pan May 9.
More of an off-the-pace type than Materiality, Madefromlucky was under consideration for the Kentucky Derby but Pletcher felt more time and the sweeping turns of Belmont would do more for the colt's progress.
"In his previous races he didn't run the turns very well, and he seemed to run the turn much better at Belmont," Pletcher said. "He needs to keep improving. I think his last race was his best and he's trained well since then."
If Materiality gets a clean start this Saturday, many feel he could be the primary threat to American Pharoah's early speed. Still, Pletcher concedes there might be as much need for American Pharoah to regress as there is for his horses to improve.
"We want to run our race but we're not going to let him have it," Pletcher said. "We need him to be a little bit off his 'A' game and hopefully one of ours will be on theirs. If (Materiality) gets a good start and clean run at him, we'll get to find out how good he really is."