According to Plan – Woodward Stakes Recap

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By Sean Clancy

 

Todd Pletcher lowered his binoculars and turned to walk out of Fred Hooper’s box at the top of the clubhouse stairs Saturday afternoon.

 

“We’ll take it,” the trainer said.

Quality Road had just dominated the Woodward just as he was supposed to do. It wasn’t a moment for exultation, exclamation or exuberance. It was a $450,000 check, a lily pad on the way to the Breeders’ Cup, pure relief – an elixir for a raw-tasting loss in the Whitney, four weeks earlier.

Bred and owned by Edward Evans, Quality Road outshined six rivals in the Grade I Woodward – on paper and on the racetrack.

Quality Road broke sharply inside speedster Arcodoro, John Velazquez put the favorite into the race from the outset. Once engaged, Quality Road matched strides with Arcodoro until Velazquez angled him outside the front-runner through a quarter in 24.06.

“Today, he had a horse in front of him and he was on the bridle,” Velazquez said. “In the Whitney, he was in front and off the bridle. Today, he got competitive. When the other horse got in front of him, when I jumped his heels, on the bridle he went. That was the difference right there.”

Stalking a half-length off the lead, Quality Road led Mythical Power and a hyped-up Mine That Bird through a half in 47.76. Second choice Convocation came next, 5 lengths off the leading quartet. Passing the half-mile pole, Velazquez sent Quality Road to the lead, dispatching Arcodoro in a flash.

At the quarter pole, Velazquez sneaked a look under his shoulder, saw Mythical Power chugging along, waited a couple of strides until Quality Road straightened in the stretch and pounced onto his right lead. Velazquez buckled down on the big horse, making him draw off and run home. Velazquez hit him with his whip turned down and then turned it over and hit him again on his right side before switching to his left hand and giving him two reminders. Velazquez never let up, urging Quality Road all the way to the wire to finish 9 furlongs in 1:50 (more than a second slower than the Whitney). Nearly 5 lengths back, Mythical Power stayed on for second, a half-length to the good of late-running Tranquil Manner. Convocation made a mild rally for fourth with Indian Dance fifth. Arcodoro faded to sixth and Derby winner Mine That Bird faded to last.

“Normally when he takes the lead, you squeeze him and he goes, maybe he’s gotten older and smarter, I don’t know. Today, I let him know he needed to run,” Velazquez said. “To see him come back and be more willing to do it was important. In the Whitney, he never got in any rhythm. He needed to know, ‘When I need you, you need to respond.’ They can be different from one race to the next. Today, I got even with him.”

After the race, Pletcher was asked repeatedly if it was good to have Quality Road back. Saratoga’s champion trainer didn’t know he went anywhere.

“He gets beat half a head by a horse who’s won six out of seven, including the Clark, and the Stephen Foster, giving him five pounds. Tough game. Tough game,” Pletcher said. “It’s a relief. When you’re in that position and there’s no other acceptable result, you look at them a little differently. To me, today didn’t prove anything other than he’s still a great horse and he always has been. You can’t win every time. We laid out a plan last November and up until (the Whitney), everything fell into place, if we win by that much, instead of getting beat by that much, it’s a different game.”

Pletcher and Velazquez wanted to make it a new game. In the Whitney, Quality Road led through tepid fractions but failed to match Blame’s closing kick. Velazquez thought he should have been more aggressive, Pletcher agreed.

“I think I got too cocky and too confident, it cost me the race,” Velazquez said.

Pletcher regrouped after the Whitney, planning two workouts for Quality Road and stayed on target for the Woodward, the fifth stop on the schedule.

On Aug. 22, the schedule nearly went under water. Torrential early morning rain created two sloppy tracks for Pletcher to choose from on a dark, dreary morning. Power was out on the backside, the trainer drove his golfcart to the main track and walked onto the track, he didn’t like what he felt. He went back to the Oklahoma track and decided to go ahead with Quality Road’s scheduled breeze.

It was a tough call.

“I made the decision to work on the training track on a sloppy track which I hated to do but I didn’t want to get off schedule,” Pletcher said. “We had no electricity, I’m checking this track, I’m checking this out, I’m trying to figure out what to do. At the end of the day, I walked on the track and said, ‘You know what, this is OK. Woody (Stephens) would do it. Let’s go.’ “

Quality Road breezed an easy half-mile in 51 4/5 seconds and came out of it in good order. He returned to the main track, under Velazquez, and worked five-eighths in a minute Aug. 29.

“I let Johnny work him, just because I wanted him to get his confidence in him,” Pletcher said.

After the breeze, Pletcher and Velazquez made a simple gameplan for the Woodward; get him into the race, make sure he’s on call the whole time and when it’s time to go, go. Velazquez put a bullseye on Arcodoro and made sure Quality Road saw it too.

“It was a much better effort than last time, he was on the bridle. The only thing I did differently was I kept him busy down the stretch,” Velazquez said. “When he got to the lead the last time, he got to waiting on the other horses. He got bored and I didn’t get after him hard, I thought he would fight when the other horse came to me but he never did. Today I made sure I kept his mind on running. Today, I gave him a surprise, I let him know he’s got to do it.”

Last spring, Quality Road led the 3-year-old division after powerful wins in the Grade II Fountain of Youth and Grade I Florida Derby. Hoof problems derailed that plan and he was transferred to Pletcher’s barn. He returned to set a track record in the Grade II Amsterdam before finishing third in the Grade I Travers and second in the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup last fall. Scratched at the gate in the Breeders’ Cup, Quality Road returned to Florida and a plan was set for 2010. He had checked all the boxes, winning the Grade III Hal’s Hope, the Grade I Donn and the the Grade I Met Mile earlier this year. The imposing son of Elusive Quality came to Saratoga with the Whitney as the first goal and a month later, the Woodward as the second. Pletcher went into the Whitney with confidence.

“I’ve been in the game long enough that I always know you can always get beat, but this horse trained so great leading up to it, he put in some works that were jaw-dropping,” Pletcher said. “When your confidence level is so high and you get beat, you get mad at yourself because you know it can always happen and you’re frustrated because it did happen. It is what it is, you shake it off and regroup. It’s the nature of our business.”

Asked how long it took to get over, Pletcher answered straight and true.

“Twenty-eight days.”