Todd Pletcher, a six-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer, dominates thoroughbred racing in part because he has a thorough working knowledge of the competition.
That knowledge intruded Saturday when Pletcher’s blossoming 3-year-old filly In Tune suddenly had stride-for-stride, head-bobbing company through the stretch of the $300,000 Gulfstream Oaks.
“Any time one of the Chief’s [horses] comes to you, you’ve got to be nervous,” said Pletcher, well on his way to his 11th consecutive training title at Gulfstream Park.
The Chief is H. Allen Jerkens. A month shy of his 85th birthday, he saddled his first winner during Harry Truman’s presidency, on July 4, 1950. He’s also known as the “Giant Killer” because he trained not one but two horses that beat the fabled Secretariat in 1973.
At the wire in the 1 1/8-mile Oaks, Jerkens’ House Rules, ridden by Alex Solis, came up short by a neck. In Tune remains unbeaten in three starts and now ranks among likely contenders in the Kentucky Oaks the Friday before the May 3 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
Pletcher was delighted. “It’s rare that you have one come along this quickly and go from a short maiden to a [first-level allowance] to a graded stake,” he said. “She has stepped up in class and distance each time and passed every test. … She had some courage down the lane.”
Jerkens, who still has nine horses in training, took comparable pride in House Rules, runner-up in the Davona Dale in her last outing here on Feb. 22.
“One of ’em had to win it,” he said with a smile. “I’m just happy that she’s this good, to start with. We’ll get there.”
Pletcher, son of a trainer and a lifer in the business, cherishes the fact Jerkens remains part of thoroughbred racing’s fabric.
“The Chief has a terrific memory,” he said. “It’s such a pleasure to talk to him. He tells you stories about horses he had 40, 50 years ago and has a vivid recollection of what they did. To be able to pick a guy’s brain like that is priceless.”
The admiration is mutual.
“Nobody has done any better than [Pletcher],” Jerkens said.
Jockey Javier Castellano and In Tune covered the distance in 1 minute 50.19 seconds after stalking early leader Whomping Willow through the first three-quarters of a mile.
Other stakes races
• Trainer Marty Wolfson experienced both joy and disappointment in the same race, the $150,000 Rampart Handicap for fillies and mares 4 years old and up. His prohibitive favorite, Devil’s Cave, tired and faded to third in the stretch. But Gamay Noir, a 49-1 long shot also trained by Wolfson, rallied for victory in the 1 1/8-mile race.
“It was too much weight on [Devil’s Cave],” Wolfson said. The favorite was assigned 123 pounds to 117 for Gamay Noir, who was ridden by Paco Lopez. Gamay Noir returned $100.20 for a $2 win ticket.
• Anjaz, trained by Tom Albertrani, charged to the lead right out of the gate and never relinquished it in the 1 1/2-mile Orchid Stakes. The 5-year-old mare cruised home 1 1/2 lengths ahead of Viva Rafaela.
• Trainer Manny Azpurua joined the Derby-day festivities when Hey Leroy, a 12-1 outsider, carried Solis to a gritty victory by a neck over Mr. Online in the $100,000 Appleton. Solis, biding his time on the trainer’s instructions, said, “At the eighth pole, I thought, ‘I have a good chance here.’ He was giving his heart, and down the stretch he gave even more.”
• The unmatchable tandem of Pletcher and Castellano struck for a third victory together in the 12th race on the crowded 14-race crowd, the $100,000 Skip Away. Castellano urged Micromanage, a 4-year-old son of Medaglia d’Oro, to a 4 1/4-length victory over Norumbega.