Eddie Plesa Jr. Targets Florida Derby With Itsmyluckyday
Any trainer would be overjoyed to have a 3-year-old colt with the ability to capture two major stakes during the high-profile Gulfstream Park meeting. But Eddie Plesa Jr. has extra reason to appreciate and celebrate the accomplishments of Itsmyluckyday,
Success on the home front has been all the sweeter for South Florida’s most successful and enduring trainer during the past few decades.
“I grew up down here. I’ve been here since I was 5 years old. I went to school at Little Flower on US-1, which is 10 minutes from here. So I am a South Florida person. Is it something special? Sure,” Plesa said. “I remember Gulfstream as long as I can remember. I remember taking horses off the train and walking them from Dixie Highway to here. I can remember when they’d take horses down to the beach from here. I remember those things. Is it something special? Sure.”
The 63-year-old Plantation resident has saddled Itsmyluckyday for impressive triumphs in the $100,000 Gulfstream Park Derby on New Year’s Day and the $400,000 Holy Bull (G3) on Jan. 26.
“What’s happened with him is something you dream about,” Plesa said. “At least, I do.”
Purchased for $110,000 at the Ocala Breeders’ Sale last March, the son of Lawyer Ron is owned by longtime clients Marion Montanari and David Melin’s Trilogy Stable and Plesa’s wife of 33 years, Laurie.
Plesa, who has saddled more than 2000 winners, is preparing Itsmyluckyday for a start in the $1 million Besilu Stables Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Saturday. A victory or a second-place finish in the 1 1/8-mile stakes would give Plesa’s trainee enough qualifying points to be included in the 20-horse field for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 4.
“I try not to get caught up in it. There’s Derby Fever, and I don’t want to get caught up in it. I don’t allow myself to build myself up, because I’m superstitious. You can talk to my wife and she’ll give you a different answer. You can talk to Marion Montanari and David Melin, and they’re supposed to be dreaming – that’s what they’re in it for,” Plesa said. “I, myself, I don’t have that luxury right now.”
Despite all of his successes, Plesa has never been one to get caught up in the hype, preferring a more low-key approach to training his horses. He has continued that approach with Itsmyluckyday, who has blossomed at Gulfstream in two-turn races.
“It was a matter of him finding his niche,” said Plesa, who has also saddled Successful Song for a pair of stakes victories at the current Gulfstream meeting. “I was waiting for the distance races all along. Did he far exceed anything that I thought? Absolutely. But I did expect him to be a distance horse.”
In past years, Itsmyluckyday would have already qualified for the Derby with the $240,000 in graded-stakes money he earned while upsetting the Todd Pletcher-trained Shanghai Bobby, last year’s 2-year-old Eclipse Award winner, in the Holy Bull. Churchill Downs has instituted a points system this year that is heavily weighted on the late prep races, such as the Florida Derby.
“I feel bad for myself that there’s no guarantee. How would you like to be Todd Pletcher? His horse was juvenile champion and he’s in the same boat I am,” Plesa said “Is it fair? I don’t think so.”
Should Itsmyluckyday come through again in the Florida Derby, he would become Plesa’s second starter in the Kentucky Derby.
Table for Three
Three Ring had thoroughly dominated 3-year-old fillies at Gulfstream Park in 1999, capturing the Davona Dale (G2) and Bonnie Miss (G2) so impressively that owner Barry Schwartz, CEO of Calvin Klein, decided to give the daughter of Notebook a chance against the boys in the Kentucky Derby. Unfortunately, she finished 19th after experiencing early traffic trouble.
“She just had a horrible trip. She came out of the gate – she’s supposed to have speed – and she didn’t get away as good as we wanted her to,” Plesa recalled. “Johnny Velazquez was on her and he had to stand straight up on her and yank her, when he did, the saddle slipped on her and that was the end of the story. It was a waste of a race. I felt bad for the owners. They didn’t get a fair chance.”
Three Ring bounced right back to win the Acorn Stakes (G1) at Belmont Park a month later. However, the promise of a brilliant career was cruelly eradicated by a tragic and fatal accident in the Belmont paddock prior to the running of the Mother Goose (G1). Three Ring reared and fell backwards, hitting her head against a post and severely fracturing her skull and putting an end to her life.
“Not having a lot of family, at that time, it was like losing a member of the family. You’re standing there and she flips over, hits her head and dies. I was just covered with blood. It was traumatic; it was shocking; it wasn’t fair,” Plesa somberly recalled. “I can remember saying to Sue Wagner, who was my assistant at the time, ‘Go home, clean yourself up and meet me back at our place.’ My wife and her and myself went to an Italian restaurant that I knew was close-by and we had ourselves an Irish wake. We just got blasted and toasted the filly.”
Following the tragedy, Plesa was struck by a haunting thought.
“Every time she ran – I don’t know why I did it, because I never did it before and never did it since – I would go to a church. The day of the race, every time she ran after she won the Stallion Stakes, I’d go to a church and I’d put money in and light a candle and say a little prayer,” Plesa said. “The day this happened, the church I was going to was having a wedding and I couldn’t get in. It had nothing to do with it, but it sticks in my mind. I remember driving up to the church and saying, ‘Oh, my God, they’re having a wedding. What am I going to do now? I don’t know any other Catholic churches around.’ ”
Thoroughbred trainers have to be prepared for the inevitable lows as well as the highs of horse racing, but nothing could have prepared Plesa for Three Ring’s untimely death.
“Going on a racetrack and taking a bad step, it’s an unfortunate thing that happens with racehorses. But having them in an enclosed area and have that kind of accident, it never happened to me before.” Plesa said.
Learning the Ropes
Plesa grew up on the backstretch and learned the ropes from his father, Eddie Plesa Sr., who was a successful rider in Detroit and Cleveland before turning to training in the 1960s and becoming permanently based in South Florida upon the opening of Calder Race Course in 1971.
“He taught me to always do the right thing,” the younger Plesa said.
While assisting his father, Plesa would take his cheaper horses to Tampa for the winter before returning to Calder.
“One year I decided to go on to Rockingham. I had to stop somewhere for 30 days. I stopped at Beulah Park in Columbus, Ohio. That year, I was second leading trainer at Tampa and I went to Beulah with 22 or 24 horses,” Plesa recalled. “In a 30-day meet, they claimed almost all of my horses, all but four or five. So I came back to Florida and was offered a job in the racing office at Calder.”
With the lure of actually getting a day off, Plesa accepted the position and soon became the assistant racing secretary. While working in the racing office, he met his wife, Laurie, whose father, Joe, was a jockey who would become a state steward at Charles Town, and whose brothers, John and Jason, would become trainers. John saddled Smarty Jones for victories in the 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
About a year later Plesa was lured back to training for good by a job offer to assist friend Stan Hough, who was training for Harbor View Farm.
Plesa went on to establish himself as a successful trainer who has won numerous training titles at Calder while developing a long string of stakes performers, including Best of the Rest, a multiple-stakes winner of more than $1.4 million in purses.
“I have a lot of favorites, but the one that I respected more than any of them was Best of the Rest. He was a very unsound horse,” Plesa said. “He’d run three or four races and you’d have to put him up for six, seven months. You’d bring him back and he would come back and run fantastic. “
The Florida-bred gelding won 16 of 32 starts during his six-year career.
“He did it the hard way. He won here, won at Calder. There was a horse, like an athlete, when he was on his game, he was hard to beat,” said Plesa, who campaigns a division of his stable at Monmouth Park. “You’d only have a short window every year, but he lasted for six years.
“People buy horses and measure hearts; they measure the pump, the heart of the horse, but how do you measure what’s inside the horse. Does the physical heart translate into a horse that goes above and beyond? You see athletes that are nicked up and go out there and play their best games. There are others that have next to nothing wrong with them and they can’t play. Heart, that’s what it is, and he had heart.”
Gottcha Gold, who finished second in the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, had a productive career with earnings of nearly $1 million in purses. In addition to putting his trainer into the winner’s circle after multiple stakes, including the 2008 Skip Away (G3) at Gulfstream, Gottcha Gold became indirectly and partly responsible for Itsmyluckyday joining Plesa’s barn.
“Gottcha Gold was on the cusp of being a top horse. He was a later developer. He didn’t really develop until late in his 3-year-old year and got good at 4. He’s one of the reasons we bought Itsmyluckyday,” Plesa said. “Gottcha Gold beat Lawyer Ron at Monmouth in the Salvator Mile. It made me notice Lawyer Ron and what kind of horse he was. It always stuck in the back of my mind and when I saw this horse at the sale, being by Lawyer Ron was a plus.”
Plesa hopes Itsmyluckyday will get the gold at Gulfstream on March 30 and Churchill Downs on May 4.