It was the first Classic victory for Todd Pletcher, who holds the record with seven Eclipse Awards as the leading trainer in North America but has been displaced at the top of the competitive New York circuit by Chad Brown, who is seemingly bound for a fourth consecutive Eclipse. Pletcher increased his overall win total at the Breeders’ Cup to 11.
“It’s so special for us and our organization. It was one thing I was missing,” said Pletcher. “We won, and it feels great.”
Pletcher had made no secret of his dissatisfaction when Vino Rosso bumped three times with Breeders’ Cup Classic foe Code of Honor in the stretch run and was disqualified and placed second in the Sept. 28 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park, the previous start for both horses.
“He redeemed himself today. There was no doubt. He won authoritatively,” Pletcher said. “For me, it was the strongest performance I’ve seen by a horse this year.”
Vino Rosso and Irad Ortiz, Jr., who took over riding duties as of the Jockey Club Gold Cup, patiently tracked frontrunning Preakness Stakes winner War of Will in fourth through the first half-mile. After 2.90-1 favorite McKinzie inherited the lead from a badly tiring War of Will, Vino Rosso ranged up to him in mid-stretch, eye-balled him, and left him in his dust. He completed the mile-and-a-quarter distance in 2:02.80 and paid $11.20 as the 4.60-1 third betting choice.
Higher Power closed for third, followed by the mare Elate. Code of Honor, the 3.70-1 second betting choice, never fired and finished seventh.
Mike Repole, who owns Vino Rosso with Vinnie Viola’s St. Elias Stable, noted that his colt was highly recommended to them by the late Jim Crupi, a trusted adviser, who operated New Castle Farm near Ocala, Fla., and played an integral role in Pletcher’s success.
“This one is for Jim Crupi,” said an emotional Repole.
Vino Rosso thrust himself into the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve picture last year by winning the Wood Memorial Presented by NYRA Bets, his final prep for the run for the roses. He was unable to follow up on that promise, however. He ran a distant ninth in the Derby, fourth in the Belmont Stakes and fifth in the Travers Stakes.
Viola kept in mind the words of Crupi, who had assured them the colt, like a rare vintage, would improve with age. He would mature into a better 4-year-old than he was at 3.
Sure enough, Crupi was right.
Pletcher began targeting the Classic in May. He urged Repole and Viola to make what is an uncommon move for them by shipping the horse from New York to California for the mile-and-a-quarter Gold Cup at Santa Anita. The result? A telling victory by three-quarters of a length over Gift Box on May 27.
According to Pletcher, the Gold Cup experience was invaluable.
“We had a blueprint in place that worked, so we tried to follow that pattern exactly,” the trainer said.
There was never any hesitation in venturing West again for the season-culminating Classic. “It gave us confidence that the horse could handle the track,” Pletcher said.
In recent weeks, Pletcher’s consternation after the Jockey Club Gold Cup gave way to an excitement he could not conceal as the Classic approached.
Viola said he kept receiving “un-Todd-like texts” from the normally wary Pletcher as every morning of strong training passed.
“He was crawling out of his skin,” Pletcher said of Vino Rosso. “The way the horse was training, you’re just so anxious for the moment to get here.”
The Classic frequently determines Horse of the Year. But that contest may have been decided the race before on Saturday, when Chad Brown-trained Bricks and Mortar got up by a brave head in the $4 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf to complete a spectacular 6-for-6 campaign, with wins coming at six different tracks.