Todd Pletcher finished an interview with an international television journalist and a few writers walking back through the paddock at Keeneland, paused for a moment, glanced up at the big screen on the back of the limestone and glass stand and wore the look of complete satisfaction.
He's won a lot of races - 3,878 to be exact - but the two he took down on Friday's first day of the Breeders' Cup World Championships somehow felt a little extra special.
First it was Liam's Map, a hugely talented colt named for a man with more bravery, courage and selflessness than most of the 44,947 that turned out for the homecoming of the Breeders' Cup to the city where the event was conceptualized. Liam's Map showed plenty of courage, overcoming a tardy start and a bit of traffic to win the $1 million Las Vegas Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile.
Then came Stopchargingmaria, a filly that Pletcher thought he might no keep in his barn when former owner Mike Repole opted to run her through the ring at nearby Fasig-Tipton last November. She didn't bring her reserve in the ring, but Repole sold her privately. The new owners, the mother-daughter tandem of Louise and Kiki Courtelis of Town and Country Farms, kept her with Pletcher and Friday that decision paid the biggest dividend.
Stopchargingmaria became Pletcher's second Distaff winner, joining Hall of Famer Ashado, and his ninth overall. The nine victories moved him into a three-way tie with two other heavyweights of the profession - Bill Mott and Aidan O'Brien, who added a winner Friday when Hit It A Bomb won the opening Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf.
"That was huge," Pletcher said as he watched the replay of Stopchargingmaria's win over Stellar Wind in the Distaff.
Stopchargingmaria came into the Distaff off a two-month freshening following a fourth-place finish in the Grade 1 Personal Ensign behind Sheer Drama, Got Lucky and Untapable. She'd won the Grade 3 Shuvee before that race and reverted to a form pattern that unfolded a year earlier when she'd win big and follow it up with a not-so-big performance.
"The one thing we were able to do as we get to know her is know that she's better with more time between races," Pletcher said. "In the past I might not have been brave enough to skip a prep in between the Personal Ensign and this.
"Getting to know her, last year when we ran her in the Coaching Club American Oaks and the Alabama she won (the Alabama), but she didn't run as well. This year she did the same thing, she ran a real big race in the Shuvee and then four weeks later not so good. I said, 'if we run back in the Spinster we'll be fine, but we might not make it back here.' That was the key."
Pletcher's two victories came from the skilled riding hands of Javier Castellano, who certainly needs no introduction as a multiple Eclipse Award winner in the midst of taking his game to an even higher level.
Castellano showed tremendous patience on Liam's Map, the 1-2 choice for the Dirt Mile and probably the heaviest favorite of the weekend aside from Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in Saturday's Breeders' Cup Classic.
Typically fast from the gate - like he was in the Grade 1 Whitney Invitational when barely caught by Honor Code and when winning the Grade 1 Woodward - Liam's Map was off slow and fourth going into the first turn. Castellano sent the Unbridled's Song colt with about 5 furlongs to run, into a hole that was there one moment and gone the next. He steadied slightly and lost a little ground.
Meanwhile it was Lea, winner of last year's Grade 1 Donn Handicap, and Jose Lezcano who took advantage of the circumstances. They took over heading into the turn, spurted away and looked like a sure winner turning into the stretch and toward the finish post. Liam's Map switched to the outside, responded to Castellano, caught Lea in the stretch and drew off to win by 2 ½ lengths.
Liam's Map's victory set off an emotional celebration in the winner's circle, where Col. Liam Collins, one of the first American special operations soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan after the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, was on hand. Vinny Viola named the $800,000 Keeneland September purchase after Collins.
Terry Finley, a former Army Ranger who operates West Point Thoroughbreds, was emotional in the winner's circle, feeling the moment after minutes earlier witnessing an even more rare scene as he watched the race from the box seats.
"The thing I was thinking about is I was standing in the box right next to Liam Collins, and I saw a Special Forces officer jumping up and down," Finley said. "And they're supposed to be cool and collected. I said, this is a magical game."
Friday's other races produced some magical moments as Mark Casse celebrated his first Breeders' Cup victory when Catch A Glimpse won the Juvenile Fillies Turf for owners Gary Barber, Mike Ambler and Jeff Begg's Windways Farm.
Casse is certainly no stranger to major successes, he's won multiple Sovereign Awards and just finished tied for leading trainer honors at the Keeneland fall meet.
Even so, he was overwhelmed by the moment and noted right before the post-race interview in a small room off the tunnel leading to the racetrack that "I've never been in one of these, it's pretty nice."
Glancing at his smartphone, Casse then noted "the most texts I've ever received" before getting underway.