Baffert vs Pletcher: A Tale of the Tape

With activity on the Derby trail starting to pick up, the one constant is that Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher are going to be loaded once again. But who are these two powerhouse trainers who dominate the road to Louisville every year? Let’s take a close look at them and what makes them so successful. ~ Steve Haskin

Baffert vs Pletcher: A Tale of the Tape

By Steve Haskin


As we are about to embark on another Kentucky Derby trail and our 21st Kentucky Derby Rankings, we will once again be discussing the leading contenders in great detail. But before we begin on Jan. 18, let’s focus first on the two trainers who are at the epicenter of the Derby trail every year and always seem to be on a collision course with their mighty equine armies who again are lining up and preparing for battle.

This is horse racing’s version of Robert E. Lee and George Meade at Gettysburg; Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo; George Washington and Sir Henry Clinton at Monmouth. General Bob Baffert as usual has already assembled a formidable force that has decimated its opponents in skirmishes on the slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains. General Todd Pletcher has begun his annual assault on the Florida coast, but on a lesser scale, as his main forces are just about ready to overrun their foes at Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs as they do most every winter, as well as an occasional foray to New York. 

The Baffert and Pletcher armies are so vast and so formidable, both generals no doubt will again divide them and possibly collide in Louisiana and especially Arkansas. Several, as always, will fall sick or wounded along the way but those who survive the preliminary battles will usually meet for supremacy on the final battlefield at Churchill Downs.

This is beginning to look like the era of the “Derby Dominators” that existed from 1988 to 2002, when in those 14 years, Nick Zito, Wayne Lukas, and Bob Baffert won an incredible nine Kentucky Derbys.

Only Baffert is left as a major force, and his main antagonist now is a graduate from the Lukas Academy who will surely join his old boss and Baffert in the Hall of Fame this year. 

Watching the multitude of Baffert and Pletcher pups frolicking about on the Derby trail each year, one could call it racing’s version of “One Hundred and One Dalmatians,” as they seem to be everywhere, just running around and having a grand old time.

But there is a third army forming that could start to change the balance of power. That army is commanded by Brad Cox, who is rapidly climbing the ladder of success and could very well dominate the Louisiana-Arkansas circuit this year. Although we are still a couple of weeks away from the first Derby Rankings, it is very possible that Baffert, Pletcher and Cox will have at least eight of the top 15 horses, which could mark the beginning of another three-trainer “Derby Dominators.” But Cox still is shooting for No. 1, so we will still focus our attention on Baffert and Pletcher, who have eight Derby victories between them, with Baffert in full control with six. But his Derby dynasty has mirrored the dynasty of the New England Patriots, who won three Super Bowls right off the bat, then a long drought, and then three more in the past six years. So keeping everything in the present, it is Baffert 3 and Pletcher 2 since 2010, with Baffert nailing down two Triple Crowns.

What makes this Baffert-Pletcher domination so intriguing and fascinating is that both generals have totally different personalities and totally different philosophies about training and combat strategy.

Baffert takes a more aggressive approach to training, with the emphasis on speed, while Pletcher rarely works his horses fast. This no doubt is reflective of Baffert’s early days in Quarter Horse racing. Like the trainers of the past, Baffert believes in training his horses hard and those that can handle it are the ones who move forward on the Derby trail. By the time the Derby is run, whichever ones make the race are toughened and honed for speed, which now seems to be the main attribute in winning on the first Saturday in May. Five of his six Derby winners were horses who raced on or just off the pace. 

Baffert has also proven that you don’t need a lot of races to be ready for the Derby as evidenced by Justify’s victory in 2018 off only three lifetime starts. He believes that is due to the fact that his horses are battled-tested in the morning, often working fast times going six, seven, and eight furlongs and running hard past the wire. 

Unlike Baffert, who will often work his Derby horses by having them break off several lengths behind a lesser known pacesetter, Pletcher will often work his Derby horses together, having them go head to head from the start and finish on the wire together. When they don’t work together they will often work alongside an older stakes horse. So whereas Baffert likes to see his big horses run off from their workmates in the final sixteenth and leave them far behind past the wire, Pletcher likes to keep his horses together the whole way around. His works usually are only four or five furlongs, and like his old boss Lukas, they never work as fast as the Baffert horses. It’s all about being competitive with good horses alongside and galloping out strong. Pletcher also believes in extensive gate work, which is why his young horses usually break quickly and are almost always in contention early.

On the racing end, Pletcher is far more conservative than Baffert in that he likes to give his horses time between races, often as long as five and six seeks. If one of his horses runs in the Derby and gets beat he will not run him back in two weeks in the Preakness and instead will wait for the Belmont Stakes. His two Derby winners who did run back in the Preakness both ran poorly. Except for last year when the Derby was run on the first Saturday in September and the Preakness a month later, every one of Baffert’s Derby winners came back and won the Preakness.

The way Baffert and Pletcher train and run their horses is reflective of their personalities. Baffert is far more outgoing and gregarious and loves interacting with the media, often cracking jokes, while Pletcher is more laid back and keeps things closer to the vest. His humor is demonstrated away from the microphone and in close circles and is rarely seen by the public. The one attribute they have in common is their uncanny ability to read their horses and determine their strengths and weaknesses and in which races they belong. Pletcher is a master at reading the condition book and often plans his strategy in advance, while Baffert is prone to calling audibles at the last minute and going by gut feeling. So his horses can pop up in a race at the last minute or defect from a race and head elsewhere.

In the beginning, Baffert referred to his good horses as ham sandwiches, meaning they were inexpensive purchases with very average pedigrees. Now that his owners are more upscale that doesn’t apply as much. Pletcher probably has trained more million-dollar purchases than anyone, but he also has proven he can win with horses that are not as royally bred as those he trains for his powerhouse owners.

So the battle lines are drawn again and the skirmishes have begun, with Baffert and Pletcher already having won stakes on the Derby trail, and Pletcher armed and ready to dominate the maiden races in Florida, unleashing a steady stream of first- and second-time starters. Although Baffert’s top Derby hopefuls are more advanced at this point with several horses having already made their mark in graded Derby preps, including Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity winner Spielberg, the exciting undefeated Life is Good, winner of the Sham Stakes, and Sham runner-up Medina Spirit, he no doubt has plenty of ammunition left in his arsenal that we haven’t seen yet. 

The Pletcher machine is just starting to roll, notching a victory in the Jan. 2 Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct with Mutasaabeq, and he has two exciting maiden winners to watch in Prime Factor and Amount, who looked awesome in their debuts. He also has the undefeated minor stakes winner Never Surprised and Known Agenda third the Remsen Stakes as well as impressive maiden winner Likeable, who got caught up in a torrid pace in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, as did Baffert’s speedy Classier both of whom are much better than they showed in the race. Pletcher, who also has a solid late closer in Overtook, loaded up this past Saturday, running five horses in three maiden races at Gulfstream.

By the end of January and middle of February we will have a better idea of Baffert’s and Pletcher’s fire power as they start taking over the winner’s circles at racetracks around the country. But this year, with the powerful forces of Brad Cox, which includes 2-year-old champion Essential Quality and three promising colts in Caddo River, Mandaloun, and Prate, waiting for them at Fair Grounds and Oaklawn Park, they likely will have quite a battle on their hands.

Welcome to the 2021 Derby trail. See you on Jan. 18.


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