John Clay

Pletcher's no better; he's still the best

LOUISVILLE — It was after the race when Glen Fullerton, the man who had won a contest and placed a $100,000 bet on Super Saver, came by the barn to meet the connections of the winner of the 136th Kentucky Derby.

Someone asked the winning trainer if he'd like to come out and meet the man who had cashed a ticket for $900,000.

"As long as I can give him my business card," joked Todd Pletcher.

In the sport of Thoroughbred racing, Pletcher needed no additional identification.

Before Saturday, he was the best trainer in the business, a four-time winner of the Eclipse Award for top trainer, a smart, supremely organized horseman who operated a mammoth racing stable of 175 horses and nearly 150 employees.

Pletcher was also a member of the "Best (blank) to never (blank)" club.

You know, the club that claimed basketball coach Roy Williams as a member until North Carolina won the NCAA Tournament. It's the same club that claimed quarterback Peyton Manning as a member until the Indianapolis Colts won the Super Bowl in 2007. It's the same club that claimed Phil Mickelson as a member before he finally won his first major golf tournament, the Masters in 2004.

Pletcher was a member of that same club, and like the other members, he claimed all along that winning the big one, in his case the Kentucky Derby, wouldn't make him a better trainer the first Sunday morning in May than he was on the first Saturday morning.

So when that first Sunday morning came, after Pletcher's Super Saver hit the wire first in the early evening of the night before, did the trainer feel any different?

"It was the one thing that was missing on our résumé," said Pletcher. "So like I said, I don't think it necessarily makes me a better trainer than I was, but I think in everyone else's eyes it means something as far as accomplishments."

It wasn't as if Pletcher ever downplayed the Derby. Not at all. This was the 10th year he had come to Louisville with the intentions of winning the race. Before Saturday, he had run 24 different horses. Make no mistake, he wanted to win this race.

"The Derby is the one you want to win the most," Pletcher said Sunday.

And when they win the big one, we do look at them differently. We can't help it. We look at Bill Russell differently than Wilt Chamberlain. We look at Michael Jordan as Michael Jordan because he won one NCAA and six NBA titles. We will look differently at LeBron after he earns that first ring.

It's no different in racing. There may be better horsemen out there than D. Wayne Lukas, but those horsemen haven't won one Derby, much less four.

Pletcher, of all people, knows that. After all, he served as Lukas' assistant. And it was Lukas that Pletcher ran into immediately after the race.

"He just told me to soak it all in," said Pletcher.

Some wonder if Pletcher is the type. Asked about his emotions after the race, the 42-year-old gave a short answer about satisfaction, then let the moment hang in the air until John Asher, the Churchill vice president who was moderating the press conference, said, "Is that it?"

Pletcher smiled, then said he was happiest his parents, J.J. and Jerrie, were both on hand.

"My mother said it was the greatest day in her life," said Pletcher.

But for a trainer who for 10 years tried to downplay what grew to be an 0-for-24 streak, Saturday's reaction stuck to the script.

On Sunday, however, Pletcher was asked that if he's not a better trainer now, is he at least a happier trainer?

The room laughed.

Pletcher smiled.

"Yeah, it's not only for me," he said, "it's for everybody in the barn, the staff and so many people who have helped you get here. And it's rewarding to see how happy they are, and your family and all that. It's a good feeling."