No one has made a greater impact on Todd Pletcher’s Hall of Fame career than his father, Jake, who is better known as JJ. Todd developed a keen eye for horses at his father’s side when he was a boy. JJ, a trainer for more than 50 years, later arranged for Todd to spend summers at the barns of such renowned horsemen as D. Wayne Lukas and Charlie Whittingham.
Todd worked as an assistant to Lukas for six years following his graduation from the University of Arizona before striking out on his own in December 1995 at JJ’s urging. JJ played an integral role in his son’s rising fortunes by helping him to identify promising racing prospects at sales and then developing them at Payton Training Center, which he continues to operate in Ocala, Fla.
JJ, 83, reflects on his son’s career as one of the preeminent trainers of all time – he has won an unrivaled seven Eclipse Awards – in a diary written with Tom Pedulla for America’s Best Racing.
Todd was an only child and his mother, Jerrie, and I put everything we had into helping him grow into a good husband and father and a successful person in whatever profession he chose.
He was born into racing. He was around the barn for as long as I can remember, and he was interested in horses from day one. He was riding a pony by the time he was 6 or 7 and he loved it. He was walking horses for me at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico by the time he was 8.
Jerrie and I divorced when Todd was 12. While that was difficult for everyone, the most important thing was that we were always on the same page in wanting what was best for our son. We both emphasized the value of education. He would stay with his mother to provide stability during the school year; he and I enjoyed the life of race-trackers every summer.
I made sure Todd accompanied me to as many horse sales as possible. We traveled to Arkansas, Kentucky, and Louisiana, anywhere we might find good racing prospects. I thought this was the best education I could provide. I wanted him to see how horses were handled and I wanted him to understand the business part of it.
I wanted him to be able to size up a weanling, yearling, or 2-year-old. If I saw something wrong with a horse, I would ask him what he thought. It got to the point where he always spotted the flaw. Not everyone can develop an eye for a horse. His is as good as it gets.
Todd excels at whatever he puts his mind to. When he was a teenager, he loved to play Pac-Man. He would have played Pac-Man for hours if I let him. Wherever we went, his name was at the top of the leaderboard by the time he was done playing.
One of the things I required of Todd was that he graduate from college. I never enrolled in college. I was too busy trying to buy a new car. It was something I always missed doing. I wanted to make sure it was not a missing piece for him. I told him it was up to him what he did with his degree – as long as he completed it.
Todd enrolled at the University of Arizona’s Racetrack Industry Program. He focused on racetrack management his first two years, then animal husbandry the last two. His education continued each summer. One summer he worked at the barn of Henry Moreno, a very good horseman and a family friend, then Lukas and then Whittingham.
Todd learned with them from the ground up. They needed grooms and he jumped in. Even then, he never let anyone beat him to the barn. He would be there at 4 a.m. He paid attention to everything going on around him. He was not afraid to ask questions, so he understood why things were being done a certain way. Good is not good enough for Todd. He wants everything to be perfect.
After his graduation from Arizona, Todd worked for six years as an assistant to Lukas. He was constantly around good horses with Wayne, and he loved his time there. I thought he was ready to go out on his own sooner. I finally had to push him a little to leave.
We set it up for him to have a $50,000 line of credit. He started with seven horses. I owned a piece of four of them. They were decent horses, nothing special. Most had never won before. We all have to start somewhere and Todd understood that every young trainer goes through growing pains. Those first few months, he would call me and say, “Dad, can you pay your bill a little early this month?” He had to meet payroll.
No trainer can succeed without good clients and good horses. Todd is a straight shooter with his owners. If a horse should bow a tendon, he lays it out there for them. He never attempts to hide bad news. Todd has done a great job of attracting owners who like him and respect him and are willing to put their faith in him by spending serious money on well-bred horses, knowing that Todd treats their money as if it is his own.
Another key to Todd’s success is the great staff he assembled. He has built a large operation, something no one person could manage on his or her own. Todd prides himself on having the best help he can possibly find, from hotwalkers to grooms to exercise riders to assistants.
Once he began doing good, it just snowballed. No one ever imagined that he would win 11 Breeders’ Cup races, seven Eclipse Awards, three Belmont Stakes, and two Kentucky Derbys while maintaining a strong family life.
Todd never lets up. He still arrives at the barn at 4 a.m. and he is usually the last one to leave. Each success only adds to his desire for more.
As he prepares to enter the Hall of Fame, no father could be prouder of his son than I am of Todd.