Short memories and short fuses are a dangerous combination. Let me remind Todd Pletcher of that in the wake of his public angst after Saturday's Florida Derby loss by Dunkirk.
Two winters ago, Pletcher could not even train horses at Gulfstream Park, forced to sit out a 45-day suspension for a conviction that resulted from his horse Tales of Glory being found to have had been administered a nerve-blocking agent (mepivacaine). America's prince of the shed row, honored multiple times with the Eclipse Award for excellence, could not hold a stopwatch, scoop oats or even come to the track in the afternoon as a fan.
Pletcher was banned for wrong-doing, whether you contend Tales of Glory got mepivacaine in his system for any array of noble or immoral reasons.
Fast forward two years to this past Saturday and Pletcher appeared back in the high life with a leading Kentucky Derby contender, Dunkirk, who went postward in the Florida Derby as the slight favorite over Fountain of Youth Stakes winner Quality Road. After Dunkirk rallied from far back, actually put a head in front and then failed to finish the deal, Pletcher did not salute the winner, who set a track record. Instead, he cried about the track's rapid-playing condition to ESPN's Jeannine Edwards.
"They obviously sped the racetrack up today," he said, with no proof, just speculation. "It's been speed-favoring all day... I told Bill Murphy [Gulfstream prez/GM] if I'd have known the track was going to be like this I would have went to Aqueduct. It's frustrating that the surface has been so good, fair, safe the whole meet that they want to change it..."
Pletcher is free to race at Aqueduct or anywhere else he wants. Gulfstream Park owes him nothing, and for him to publicly call out Murphy on national television as if to accuse his staff of some sort of wrong-doing is blasphemous. Track superintendents and their crews work tirelessly to try and keep a safe and uniform surface, toiling in complete anonymity until someone starts blowing smoke after they lose. Addressing the matter in private with Murphy was the proper thing to do, but Pletcher did not leave it at that. Even if you chalk his off-the-cuff live ESPN interview up to emotion, he reiterated the comment to print reporters several minutes later, obviously with purpose to get his point out in the press.
How would it played out if, during the 2007 season, Gulfstream officials went on the offensive against Pletcher and bad-mouthed him on national television for being a convicted medication offender and a black eye to their ability to do business with a confidence-lacking betting public? Or what if someone questioned the rapid rise of Dunkirk? A horse comes from nowhere to Florida Derby favorite and hails from a barn that was penalized in recent years. How ludicrous would it look for someone with a company nametag to suggest Dunkirk is juiced? Imagine that backlash. The fact is that there was, and remains, a higher road to take in such matters. Pletcher should know respect runs both ways.
Pletcher's frustration this past Saturday comes with some history to which I can attest. On Kentucky Derby Day 2001, second-time starter Love At Noon opened the card with a track record-setting performance at 6 1/2 furlongs. Two more track records fell by the time the fourth race was completed. Then Pletcher's star sprinter Trippi ran up the track in the Churchill Downs Handicap and the seal came off the trainer's lips. I know because I was there. I took the quote as a member of the official notes team that was distributed to the press and landed in nearly every newspaper account in the country in the coming days.
"What are they going to do, set nine track records today?" he angrily retorted when bemoaning how the track did Trippi in somehow. "They might as well run it on Fourth Street."
Pletcher's short-sighted anger in 2001 lasted a few races before his late-running, near-impossible longshot Invisible Ink ran a dynamite second in the Kentucky Derby to Monarchos, who essentially swooped by the entire field. Fast forward, and Pletcher's accusation Saturday that a fast track did in Dunkirk, specifically, and all late-running horses, in general, fails his own complaint premise. The fact is, Dunkirk rallied past all other challengers in the Florida Derby, made the lead and could not outrun a better performer on this day. Did he forget that Monarchos came from the clouds in the fastest Derby not run by Secretariat, and behind the fastest pace in the race's history?
Hey, there's no denying the track at Gulfstream Park was fast on Saturday, and certainly anyone who saw the 2001 Kentucky Derby Day teletimer onslaught can't argue against the mind-boggling numbers. But because the tracks were fast-playing do not necessarily mean the playing fields somehow were unleveled. And that's the dangerous accusation Pletcher leveled at Gulfstream on Saturday and Churchill in 2001.
Suspicion of foul play rates as one of the horse racing industry's biggest hurdles to climb. In a tenuous time for everyone who gets a paycheck from the game, trainers ought not make such finger-wagging suggestions. A trainer like Pletcher, who has had to sit aside for a serious suspension like 45 days, certainly has leased the glass house of impropriety and has lost his right to throw stones. To say the track was sped up, on purpose, immediately puts conspiracy theorists on the follow-up questions, "Why?" and "For Whom?"
Track biases often are claimed by horsemen and handicappers, but are nearly impossible to prove and even more impossible to pinpoint before the fact, thus making them a perfect Monday Morning Quarterback topic. You will find scores of handicappers who swear by them and others who slough them off as more "sour grapes" than sound logic. Noted southern California handicapper Kurt Hoover, who has been a mainstay from the paddock at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park for two decades, once told me in an interview:
"To me -- hands down -- the most overrated handicapping angle is track bias. It does appear on occasion, maybe once or twice a month. I find it laughable when I hear the 'rally wide closer' track bias. Where else do closers rally? How many do you see close from last and decide to go down on the rail and get in the traffic and horses stopping in front of them?
"Then you have the 'inside speed bias.' Well, if you make the lead, 99 times out of 100, you're going to go over to the rail. To me, track bias is using an excuse for a bad bet or your wrong handicapping. My favorite is when the first two races of the day are won wire-to-wire and everyone is talking about the inside speed bias. You look up and those horses paid $4.80 and six bucks. I am adamant about track bias being extremely overrated. Once in a while, you will catch something and there will be a bias. For the most part, it's absolute nonsense."
For the record, Saturday's two track records at Gulfstream both were set by graded-stakes performers. No other race on the card ran within a full second (five lengths) of any existing main-track record. Every main track winner was sent away at odds of 3-1 or less. Might there have been an edge? Sure, a reasonable person can deduce that watching the races. But was it so pronounced as to suggest some sort of competitive impropriety? Hardly.
Meanwhile, blaming the track surface continues on as the oldest excuse in the book, even though it's becoming more prevalent. One of the reasons is because of short-fused owners, who without any contractual obligations to keep their horses with one barn or another, simply can move their stock tomorrow after a bad run today. It's always been this way. But what's changed in society, namely commitment and integrity, also has changed among those who hand out their silks.
No trainer is ever going to admit that they did not have a horse fit enough, or that they gave the jockey bad instructions in the paddock. No jockey is ever going to come back and say he moved too soon or got stuck in a pickle because he was indecisive. Blame the dirt, the turf, the Polytrack, whatever. Last I checked soils of any kind can't defend themselves.
After all the complaints and analysis, both Quality Road and Dunkirk are phenomenal racehorses worthy of our Kentucky Derby consideration, no matter what side of the win or loss you were on in the Florida Derby.
Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000. He is the managing partner of the handicapping website Horseplayerpro.com You can E-mail Jeremy about this topic or anything racing-related at Jeremy@Horseplayerpro.com.