The Saratoga meet always carries its own momentum and allure based on decades of good, clean fun. In recent past, or indefinitely if we’re being honest, the meet hinges on what horses you want to see run, usually the Kentucky Derby winner and maybe a prime older mare or horse. We cross our fingers and hope against a suspensory ligament that it comes to bear. This year is different and the stakes are higher. Instead of waiting for a particular horse or horses, it’s a seven-week slugfest between two trainers, not horses: Chad Brown and Todd Pletcher. What was the latest trainer rivalry? Saratoga backstretch neighbors Nick Zito and D. Wayne Lukas in the early to mid-90s? Point being, this trainer battle between Brown and Pletcher at the start of the meet is the best one we’ve seen in decades. Trainer titles get heated throughout the meet. Look no farther than in 2009 when Linda Rice became the first female trainer to win nosing out Pletcher on the final day of the meet. Pletcher then went on to rattle off six in a row with Brown nipping at his heels bit by bit each year until finally, in 2016, Brown passed Pletcher and broke the win record in the process.
“It really feels like a dream come true,” said Brown in a 2016 NYRA release. “I’m really just like the lead singer of a band; the people behind me make the music. I’m here right now giving the interview, but I have 150 employees and every single one of them I find to be highly skilled and highly dependable in working as a team. I have several employees who do things that I can’t do and I do some things they can’t do. But we all pitch in and do our job and this is truly a team effort. I’m just a lucky guy to be able to wake up and go to the barn and have them working with me.” Brown did it at age 39, which makes you ask yourself “What the hell have you been doing with your life?” In any case, this will prove to be the heavyweight bout of the meet and it will go on every single day. Not just Saturdays, but Wednesdays, even dark Tuesdays. Don’t ask me how, it just will, because you know these masterminds will be looking at the condition book looking for the best spots for their horses, but also the best spots to beat each other.
This narrative started back in Saratoga 2016, and continued through, of all places, the 2017 Triple Crown.
• Pletcher won the Derby with Always Dreaming. Punch.
• Brown surges to win the Preakness with Cloud Computing. Counter punch.
• Pletcher swipes the Belmont with Tapwrit. Haymaker.
And the dream of any fan looking at that penultimate Saturday of the meet—Travers Day—is to see all three Triple Crown race winners in the same race (American Pharoah doesn’t count. He just doesn’t.). At the very least, you know Always Dreaming, Cloud Computing and Tapwrit will be on the grounds together, something that was charming back in 2009 when Mine That Bird and Summer Bird had neighboring stalls over in the Stakes Barn and Rachel Alexandra ruled across Union. That potential Travers bout comes later, if at all. But right from the start, it will be how Brown’s turf horses perform and how precocious Pletcher’s two-year-olds are. The condition book caters, or rather, Brown and Pletcher’s training styles and stock, cater to the condition book. In 2016 Brown had 164* starters to Pletcher’s 149. The Pletcher Industrial Complex started 90 horses on the main track that granted him 23 of his 31 wins. Brown started 46 on the main track and earned 14 wins, but it’s on grass where Brown kicks the ever-living s—t out of the rest of the field. Brown started 118 horses on the turf and earned 26 of his record 40 wins. It’s appropriate to use any and all GTFOs and WTFs when saying those numbers aloud. Spit-takes also welcome. Brown on green is officially the worst bet at Saratoga. He hit the board 56.8 percent of the time on the turf. Death, taxes, Brown on the grasses.
For either of these trainers to hold each other off, they’ll have to start from Day 1 until Day 40.
• Twenty-16, Pletcher dethroned, looks to regain his crown.
• Twenty-16, Brown, supplanted Pletcher in an equine regicide.
• Twenty-17, Pletcher won two Triple Crown races, Brown won the other.
It’s your classic case of Brown v. Board of Pletchercation. Does it get any better than that?
*: Disgusting and by all accounts unbelievable statistics come via Equibase.com.
Brendan O’Meara is a freelance writer and author of Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year. He’s also the host of The Creative Nonfiction Podcast.