by Jon Forbes
Jonathan Thomas and Michael McCarthy, both former assistants to trainer Todd Pletcher, have been part of many major victories at Belmont Park. This Saturday, Stars & Stripes Day, Thomas and McCarthy will have the chance to create some Belmont Park history of their own.
Thomas, who was Pletcher's Belmont-based assistant from 2008-11, will send out Catholic Boy in the Grade 1, $1.25 million Belmont Derby Invitational for 3-year-olds. Earlier on the card, McCarthy, who assisted Pletcher from 2002-13, will saddle Paved for the Grade 1, $1 million Belmont Oaks Invitational for 3-year-old fillies.
Thomas and McCarthy took different paths en route to working with Pletcher, but the same factors attracted them to the operation, and both men have adopted similar philosophies in their own training careers.
"[Pletcher's] work ethic is tremendous," said Thomas. "He's a guy with a great intellect and has a great way of communicating with owners, but he also works really hard. Not to discredit anybody, but he's the best horseman/trainer I have ever seen. You learn to go from A to Z and be methodical. Good day or bad day, whatever it is, you get up and give it your best the next day. He could win four graded stakes in a day and he would be the first at the barn the next day."
Added McCarthy: "When it comes to preparation and seeing the big picture, I don't think anybody has [Pletcher's] equal in our profession, especially when it comes to the numbers and different moving parts and locales. I think he sets the gold standard when it comes to being dedicated to your craft."
Thomas was born into racing, growing up on Rokeby Farms in Virginia as his parents broke horses for Paul Mellon. He competed as a steeplechase jockey for two years before being seriously injured in a spill in 2000. After making a gradual but full recovery, he shifted his focus to the training side of the game, assisting Christophe Clement and Dale Romans before going to Saudi Arabia in 2007 to work with trainer Julio Gardel.
Thomas nearly committed to staying in Saudi Arabia for a second year before Todd Pletcher approached him with an intriguing opportunity.
"My contract was coming to an end in Saudi, and I was close to re-upping for the year," said Thomas. "It was Dubai World Cup weekend and Todd half-interviewed me in the paddock in Dubai and asked me to spend a couple of days with him. It was too good of an offer to pass up. I came to Belmont, spent the day with him, went back to Saudi, packed my stuff, and started working for him a few days later. He was somebody I had always admired and thought his program was as flawless as it comes in this business."
Thomas became Pletcher's right-hand man at Belmont, a role he served through the fall of 2011.
"Quality Road was a favorite, Uncle Mo was a favorite, Devil May Care was a tremendous filly," said Thomas, reflecting on his time at Belmont. "If you ask me what I miss most? When we trained, I would hop in the car with Todd and watch horses train and it was a time I could pick his brain and learn. That was something I really enjoyed, the mornings we got to spend together. The big afternoon successes were memorable, but imagine playing basketball with LeBron James and getting to ask him questions. The morning banter with one of the greatest trainers; that's what I miss the most."
Thomas left Belmont to spent a year working for Pletcher's father, bloodstock agent J.J. Pletcher, before signing on with Bridlewood Farm in 2013 and taking out his trainer's license in 2015. He continues the dual role to this day, developing racing prospects for Bridlewood and its clients while training his own group of horses of racing age. Currently, Thomas is overseeing strings at Bridlewood and at Saratoga.
"We draft or recruit raw, young talent and start to develop it, and then if the clients allow it we keep the talent to race," said Thomas. "And some horses are bought for Todd [Pletcher] or Chad [Brown], and we get those horses ready for them. We had Tapwrit, and he was always going to go for Todd. We broke Gun Runner, we broke Carina Mia, and we broke Destin. And we had Catholic Boy. It's been cool because it's not me versus everyone else. I get to work with really good people and there are some horses left over for me to train, which is great."
Thomas raced a limited number of starters in 2015 and 2016 before expanding his racing operation last year. Catholic Boy -- owned by Robert LaPenta, Madaket Stables, Siena Farm, and Twin Creeks Racing Stables -- capably carried the banner for the Thomas barn in 2017, winning the Grade 3 With Anticipation at Saratoga Race Course and the Grade 2 Remsen at Aqueduct Racetrack.
Catholic Boy's win in the Remsen inspired his connections to keep the colt on the dirt through the spring. He finished a close second in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis but didn't fire in the Grade 1 Florida Derby, finishing fourth.
"He had certainly trained fine on the dirt, but we didn't expect him to jump up and do what we did [in the Remsen], so that had us re-looking at his future, and with him being a 3-year-old that was the Triple Crown trail," said Thomas. "I thought he ran well in the Davis, but I thought he ran a little bit like a turf horse to me. He was absolutely loaded, and then when he came off the bridle, he scrambled a little. For the Florida Derby he trained very good, but he took a lot of kickback and he had a one-off bleeding episode."
With the Triple Crown no longer in play, the Belmont Derby and other major turf races became Catholic Boy's objectives. In his only start since the Florida Derby, Catholic Boy out-fought heavy favorite Analyze It to win the Grade 3 Pennine Ridge by a neck on June 2 at Belmont. Thomas will face his former boss in the Belmont Derby as Pletcher will be represented by Channel Cat and Maraud.
"I don't know if you can call it the pinnacle of that division, but I think it's fair to say [the Belmont Derby is] the Kentucky Derby or Belmont Stakes of the 3-year-old turf division, certainly from a purse scenario," said Thomas. "If you look at the past winners, it's probably going to be looked at as a grass classic, so it's a race we're taking very seriously for him. You certainly have the [Grade 1] Secretariat [at Arlington Park], but for a 3-year-old colt on the turf, this is the race."
Following Thomas' departure, Pletcher elected to relocate McCarthy from Churchill Downs to Belmont. McCarthy, who had grown up near Santa Anita and worked for various trainers in Southern California, joined the Pletcher barn in 2002, working at Palm Meadows, Payson Park, Delaware Park, Saratoga, Santa Anita, and Churchill. During his California assignment, McCarthy oversaw the development of Rags to Riches, who went on to win the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks and Grade 1 Belmont Stakes in 2007.
During his three years at Belmont, McCarthy helped develop another Kentucky Oaks winner for Pletcher as Princess of Sylmar won the Busanda and Busher at Aqueduct Racetrack during the winter of her 3-year-old season.
"Winning a Kentucky Oaks with Princess of Sylmar after she had been with us in New York all winter long was really exciting," said McCarthy. "Being part of Palace Malice's Belmont Stakes championship, that was great. There were other things I thought were real neat, like being around Shanghai Bobby and watching him develop into a champion 2-year-old after he got his start at Belmont Park. I got to be around horses like Caixa Eletronica, and we always had some action. Mike Repole claimed a lot of horses, moved a lot of horses around, and brought a lot of horses in. It was a neat experience to be around a lot of the better New York racing and to compete in some of the claiming races."
At the end of 2013 McCarthy decided to strike out on his own and return to California, ending his 11-year apprenticeship under Pletcher. He slowly built his business in California, winning a total of 48 races in his first three years, including the 2014 Grade 3 Bob Hope with No Problem, 2016 Grade 1 Gamely and 2017 Grade 2 Monrovia with Illuminant, and the 2017 Grade 1 Malibu with City of Light.
He has had a breakthrough year so far in 2018, with 16 wins in the first six months alone. City of Light has added victories in the Grade 1 Triple Bend and Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap, while The Lieutenant, a half-brother to Justify, won the Grade 3 All American for McCarthy.
"I enjoyed my time [at Belmont] immensely and enjoyed being part of a team," said McCarthy. "I built up relationships, not only with people in racing but also people out of racing. I miss those relationships, but it just became time for be to take my next step and make a leap of faith. It took a little time for things to get moving in the direction I wanted them to, but with some hard work and some perseverance things have worked out."
Paved, trained by McCarthy for Ciaglia Racing and Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, hinted at her potential when she broke her maiden impressively in January on the turf at Santa Anita in her third start. Her connections then took an unorthodox approach, deciding to have her face males and try a synthetic surface in the El Camino Real Derby. She rewarded their confidence by becoming the first filly to win the El Camino Real in its 37-year history, defeating eventual Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks and Grade 3 Peter Pan victor Blended Citizen in the process.
After disappointing as the favorite when third in the Grade 3 Providencia back in April, Paved rebounded with a 3 ½-length score in her most recent start, the Grade 2 Honeymoon on June 9.
The Belmont Oaks has been a possible target for Paved ever since her maiden win, according to McCarthy.
"It's a great concept," said McCarthy. "Martin Panza developed something like this during his tenure at Hollywood Park when he came up with the concept of the American Oaks, and it became a big success. The Belmont Oaks is more of that, a $1 million purse, centrally located, plenty of horses from Europe and some of the better 3-year-old turf fillies from the West Coast will be participating. If you can win a race like the Belmont Oaks, it will stamp you as the best 3-year-old grass filly, if not the best 3-year-old filly, in the country and will set you up for races like the Del Mar Oaks and Queen Elizabeth [II Challenge Cup]. Turf racing has become more popular in the last 5-10 years. It's a global game, and I think a filly who can win a race like the Belmont Oaks is capable of winning anywhere in the world."
McCarthy is grateful for the opportunity to be part of Stars & Stripes Day at this stage of his career.
"Any time you can put a horse on a plane and run in one of these big races, it means a lot," said McCarthy. "It shows that you and your staff are doing something right. To get an invitation to something like this validated our organization and is exciting for Eclipse Thoroughbreds. I enjoyed my time in New York and enjoyed the people of New York, and I hope things go smoothly and we put our best foot forward."
Unsurprisingly, Thomas is taking a similar approach.
"Any time you are taking a horse to a big race, it's a real privilege because it's not easy to get there," said Thomas. "There's also a responsibility because these are important, career-defining races for a horse. More than anything for me, it's just a privilege to be a part of these things."