Balto Star's time to shine?
By Ed McNamara
Special to ESPN.com
When they were his age, Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas still hadn't made the jump from quarter horses to thoroughbreds. At 33, Todd Pletcher is the all-around top under-40 trainer in North America, and one of the best regardless of age. His winning rate consistently hovers around 20 percent, and his game has no holes. He's strong on dirt and turf, going short, in between or long, with 2-year-olds and first-timers, with 3-year-olds and older runners. This son of a horseman is bright, articulate and devoted to duty.
In the 5 1/2 years since he left his mentor Lukas and went out on his own, Pletcher has compiled a resume that few 60-something trainers can match. He's won a Saratoga title and dozens of stakes. About all he hasn't done is stand in the winner's circle on Breeders' Cup Day or after a Triple Crown race, and those moments may not be far off.
Last year Pletcher ran four horses in the Kentucky Derby, where he finished third and fourth with Impeachment and More Than Ready, respectively. Impeachment ran third again in the Preakness, just failing to catch Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus for second. This year Pletcher's Invisible Ink was second in the Derby at odds of 55-1, and he's back for Saturday's 133rd running of the Belmont Stakes. So is Pletcher's Derby also-ran, Balto Star, who never made the lead and staggered home 14th, 32 lengths behind Monarchos. Oddly, it's Balto Star who's been getting more attention, and it's because of the gelding's running style.
Balto Star projects as the lone speed in the Belmont, and the fractions he sets will have a lot to do with how the Triple Crown finale plays out. If Hall of Fame rider Chris McCarron, replacing Mark Guidry, can get away with walking on the lead, Balto Star may still be on the lead entering the stretch. The Belmont usually is won by a stalker who makes a strong middle move, but an unchallenged front-runner is always dangerous, especially with a master of pace like McCarron.
"All horses are pace susceptible, and he is, too," Pletcher said last week. "It all comes down to pace. If we're able to lay down some legitimate fractions like 46 and change or 47, I think that gives us a chance. If he goes in 44 and change and 1:09 like they did in the Derby, then it's not going to work.
"We've all seen where everyone thinks the horse closing at the end of the Derby and maybe sucking up for third or fourth is going to be the one that goes a mile and a half. And a lot of times it's one of these horses that shows speed and gets away with softer fractions that can carry their speed a lot farther than you would think."
There are many reasons to doubt Balto Star's chances to steal "The Test of the Champion." Although he entered the Derby on a three-race winning streak with a total margin of almost 30 lengths, he's never defeated a top-class horse. None of the ones he blew away in the Turfway Spiral Stakes or the Arkansas Derby has returned to do anything, and Balto Star may just be the type that gets brave after outrunning mediocrities for the lead.
His pedigree doesn't say 1 1/2 miles, either. His sire, Glitterman, is known more for producing sprinters and middle-distance types. His five-week layoff since the Derby also is a negative. In the past 15 years, only last year's winner, Commendable, and Irish shipper Go and Go (1990) took the Belmont after more than a three-week rest.
Pletcher often wins off the layoff, and he thinks the freshness angle might work, even if it bucks a Belmont trend.
"As a rule, when you have five weeks between races, you should come back better than if you ran back in just two weeks," he said Tuesday morning.
"It's no secret that the Triple Crown races are grueling . . . I think it was the right thing to do with them, skipping the Preakness. Going from a mile and a quarter in the Derby to a mile and three-sixteenths two weeks later is tough. We're hoping that it's taken something out of the horses that have done it."
You don't have to look far back to see that strange things can happen in the Belmont, an exhausting race for stressed-out 3-year-olds after a draining winter and spring. Last year Commendable stalked the slow pace (:49 1/5, 1:14 1/5) of no-hoper Hugh Hefner before getting first run on the closers after a mile in 1:39. They never got near him, and at the eighth pole he was gone. Commendable hadn't won in six races since breaking his maiden, so his credentials were a lot weaker than those of Balto Star, who's 4-for-6 this year with earnings of more than $700,000.
"I'm of the thought that these horses are going to get a mile and a half or they won't," Pletcher said. "I think the key is how the pace scenario unfolds.
"It's going to depend how much [Balto Star] relaxes once he's on the front end. Sometimes you can make a mistake of restraining these horses too much. So I'm going to leave that in Chris McCarron's hands. And if he feels like he's comfortable and wants to open up five or six lengths, all right then, I'm all for it."