The Todd Pletcher that most people see is quiet, calm, methodical.
He’s almost too quiet, calm and methodical.
But twice now, the Kentucky Derby has gotten the best of the longtime trainer.
Twice, the moment has been able to override the quiet calm.
After Always Dreaming crossed the finish line of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday nearly 3 lengths ahead of the second-place finisher, Pletcher hugged family and friends under the shadows of the Churchill Downs Twin Spires.
The trainer’s eyes were wet behind his sunglasses. He wiped away tears as they tried to race down his cheeks.
“If you’re not going to get excited and emotional about the Kentucky Derby, then you’re probably in the wrong business,” he said nearly an hour later, an hour after he won his second Kentucky Derby.
“I didn’t know how I would respond. It was similar to when Super Saver won, you go down and you start to see your family and everyone, that’s when it really kind of sets in emotionally.”
There was something about hugging his parents, J.J. and Jerrie Pletcher, something about the rush of victory for a second time that had him choked up.
“One of the things that’s really special about these events is having my parents here to see it and share it with them and the rest of my family,” he said. “That’s kind of what brings out the emotion in it.”
He’d experienced this wave of emotion before, seven years ago when Super Saver broke Pletcher’s winless streak in the Kentucky Derby. But winning it this second time was different.
“It’s even more special than the first one,” he told NBC right after the race.
Later, Pletcher explained that it was maybe more special because it provided — for lack of a better word — validation for the trainer who had gone 1-for-45 in the nation’s most important race.
Many times he’d had multiple horses in multiple races (five starters in 2007 and 2013, four starters three different times and others) and still no roses.
“I felt like I really needed that second one,” he said of Saturday’s victory. “The first one was extra special. I have a tremendous respect for the race, tremendous respect for how difficult it is to win, but I felt like we needed another one as a team to put it together.”
Pletcher, 49, said he tells his children that it’s important to learn from each mistake, each misstep and to grow from it, to improve.
He’s tried to do that with each Kentucky Derby defeat.
“I don’t think I’m any better trainer right now than I was an hour ago, but I felt like another one would solidify it,” Pletcher said. “I’ve taken a lot of criticism for our Derby record, so we were hoping to improve on that. That’s what you do.”
Pletcher’s team had to make a few extra tweaks this time around, including putting draw reins on Always Dreaming and using a different exercise rider during the week leading up to the race.
“I don’t recall having to do it in a high-profile situation, certainly not with a likely Derby favorite,” the trainer said. “(But) part of what we do as trainers is we observe how things are going with the horse, galloping and sometimes we’ll make adjustments. … It was clear we needed to make a few adjustments to get it right, and thankfully we did.”
They’re just some of the things that make Pletcher special, Always Dreaming’s owners said afterward.
“He does what he has to do,” co-owner Anthony Bonomo said of Pletcher. “He has that game face on. … It’s just been fantastic. He’s just the best.”
Fellow owner Vincent Viola quickly chimed in about the trainer and his stoic face: “He’s a superstar. He’s a superstar.”