Pletcher weighs in on Triple Crown spacing after Belmont win

Elmont, NY

If there is one thing Todd Pletcher’s four Belmont Stakes winners have in common, it was the time they had off after racing at Churchill Downs the first week of May.

Mo Donegal was the latest to be advantaged by the five-week gap between races, leading his female stablemate Nest to an exact finish in Saturday’s renewal of the Belmont Stakes.

It would seem, then, that Pletcher is just fine with the spacing of the Triple Crown races. At least two of them.

“Look, I think there’s arguments to be made both ways,” Pletcher told a half gaggle outside his Belmont Park barn on a rainy Sunday morning. “I appreciate the historical significance of having to win three races in five weeks to attain the Triple Crown.”

But he also knows his own history with horses who did not win the Kentucky Derby. Palace Malice finished 12th in 2013, Tapwrit sixth in 2017 and Mo Donegal fifth last month before they scored five weeks later in their 1 1/2-mile test. Rags to Riches, Pletcher’s first Belmont winner, was a filly who had won the Kentucky Oaks (G1) 36 days earlier.

His Derby winners – Super Saver in 2010 and Always Dreaming in 2017 – went to the Preakness and finished eighth coming off the short, two-week break.

Pletcher might be diplomatic with his talk about maintaining the Triple Crown structure. But his actions with non-winners of a previous classic show he is just fine adhering to a normal break between races.

“If you don’t win the Derby,” he said, “for us, this is our home track. The Belmont has become sort of our main focus. We’ve had some good fortune doing it that way, so I don’t mind it.”

Still needing a Preakness victory to complete a personal career Triple Crown, Pletcher said he did not necessarily buy into the belief that the achievement in a single year would be watered down by spreading the races across three or four more weeks.

“You can also make the argument that it might be tougher to do if everybody showed up and it was run over the course of a couple of months,” he said. “I’d be in favor of whatever is best for horse racing.”

Rivalries are good for the sport, and Pletcher knows he had a few participants on display Saturday.

Nest, who was trying to follow in the footsteps of Rags to Riches, might have given Mo Donegal a bigger challenge had she not lost three lengths to a bad start. Last month she finished second to Secret Oath in the Oaks, and Nest could meet her again as soon as the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) next month at Saratoga.

“She’s a super filly,” Pletcher said of Secret Oath. “I think Nest showed yesterday that she is, too. She could make it for some exciting races at Saratoga. … We’ll target the Alabama (G1, Aug. 20) and decide if we want to run in the Coaching Club before that or not.”

The 3-year-old fillies also include Echo Zulu, the 2021 juvenile champion who was an enigmatic, veterinary scratch Saturday from the Acorn (G1), and Kathleen O., who has been on a break since her fifth-place finish in the Oaks.

“That’s what makes this such a deep, deep group,” Pletcher said. “But I think (Nest and Secret Oath) have stepped up and shown they’re the two best. It’ll be interesting when they match up again.”

Like Pletcher’s other horses who ran Saturday, Malathaat was pronounced to be fit after her second-place finish to Clairière in the Ogden Phipps (G1). It signaled a possible changing of the guard in the older female division after Letruska wilted to a torrid, early pace and finished fifth. Instead of Letruska and Malathaat, maybe it will become Malathaat and Clairière.

“They’ve run together quite a bit,” said Pletcher, who saw Malathaat defeated by Clairière for the first time in five meetings. “Two really, really good fillies.”

Then there are the 3-year-old evils. For the fourth year in a row, three different horses – Rich Strike, Early Voting and Mo Donegal – won the classics, so there is no obvious leader. Throw in undefeated Jack Christopher’s 10-length runaway Saturday in the Woody Stephens (G1), and the whole division is up for grabs.

“There’s no need to rank anybody yet,” Pletcher said. “What happens in the summer and fall always seems to carry a little more weight when it comes to divisional championships. I think with (Mo Donegal’s) win in the Wood (G2) and the Belmont, the fact that he beat the Preakness winner in the Wood puts him right at the top of the list.”

Mo Donegal will target the Travers (G1) on Aug. 27. Pletcher sounded like he might run the Uncle Mo colt in the Jim Dandy (G2) on July 30 at Saratoga.

“Both of our Travers winners (Flower Alley in 2005 and Stay Thirsty in 2011) went through the Jim Dandy,” Pletcher said. “If he has a prep between now and the Travers, that would probably make the most sense.”

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