08/18/2004 11:00PM

Babies today, stars tomorrow

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - A funny thing happened at Saratoga Thursday: There was a 2-year-old race on the card and Todd Pletcher did not saddle the winner. Granted, he didn't have a horse in the race. This year, though, that has been about as rare as a day without rain in the forecast.

Last year, Pletcher rewrote the record books in New York, shattering long-standing records for the most training victories at both Belmont and Saratoga. It was a performance that would have won him the Eclipse Award as the nation's outstanding trainer in any normal season, but 2003 was also the year of Bobby Frankel's 25 Grade 1 triumphs and Richard Mandella's four-bagger on Breeders' Cup Day.

So Pletcher had to settle for third in the voting, and his accomplishments were somewhat lost in the shuffle. This year, though, it's going to be hard to overlook him again, because as good as his 2003 was, his 2004 may be even better, and nowhere more so than here at Saratoga.

Until he won an astounding 35 races here last year, no trainer had won more than 22 at a 36-day meet. This year, with 20 victories in the first 19 days of racing, he's ahead of his own pace. He is also well on his way to breaking his own record of 12 2-year-old winners at a Saratoga meeting, set last year.

Pletcher's dominance of the juvenile races at this year's meeting is unprecedented. Win or lose, he is the key player in almost every 2-year-old race at the meeting, sending out one well-backed first-timer after another. With dozens of 2-year-olds in training at Belmont, Monmouth, and Saratoga, he has a wide range of choices for every baby race at Saratoga, and it seems that every 2-year-old he puts on the track can run, whether it cost $40,000 or $1.4 million.

He has saddled 23 different 2-year-olds at Saratoga this year and has already won 10 maiden races, with Proud Accolade, Upscaled, Ready's Gal, English Channel, Funk, Paddy's Daisy, Arcturus, New York Dream, Kwondo, and Lady H. No other trainer has won more than three juvenile races. Pletcher has also run second in five 2-year-old races, meaning he's probably sitting on another handful of maiden winners at the meet. His 10 juvenile winners include not only his usual precocious speedballs, but three winners from as many starters in grass races at a mile or 1 1/16 miles.

There are sure to be a few future stakes winners among his debut winners. His dozen winning juveniles last year included future stars Purge, Pollard's Vision, Chapel Royal, Value Plus, and, of course, Ashado, who returns to the Saratoga track Saturday as the favorite in the $750,000 Alabama Stakes for 3-year-old fillies.

Ashado will be bidding to complete the closest thing racing has to a legitimate triple crown for 3-year-old fillies, having already won the division's two other most glamorous races, the Kentucky Oaks and the Coaching Club American Oaks. Those three races have been swept only once before, by Open Mind in 1989. Ashado, who won the Schuylerville and Spinaway here last summer, worked between races last Saturday in company with Pletcher's best 2-year-old, Proud Accolade, and appears to be coming up to the race at her best.

A victory would just about nail down the 3-year-old filly championship for Ashado, filling in one of the few sketchy areas of the Pletcher resume. He has had dozens of graded stakes winners, including a spectacular 15 this year alone - Alke, Ashado, Bohemian Lady, Capeside Lady, Forest Danger, Harmony Lodge, Icy Atlantic, Limehouse, Lion Tamer, Newfoundland, Ocean Drive, Pollard's Vision, Purge, Smok'n Frolic, and Speightstown - but his lone Eclipse winner has been Left Bank, the top older male of 2002. He has another top Eclipse contender this year in Speightstown, who equaled a 32-year-old track record winning the Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap last Saturday in 1:08.04 for six furlongs.

Ashado and Speightstown are particularly gratifying championship contenders for Pletcher because they answer the criticism that his success is so geared toward precocious young horses who peak early. Ashado has had the most classic campaign of any colt or filly of her generation, dancing every dance for more than a year while successfully stretching out from six furlongs to 1 1/4 miles. Speightstown has been a wonderful throwback horse, a 6-year-old who is just now hitting his peak and who successfully returned from almost two years on the sidelines with hip and ankle problems.

With Ashado in the Alabama and Purge in next Saturday's Travers, Pletcher has the opportunity to win the major national races that will take him to the final elite level in his profession. He has been knocking at the door in Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup races, and with so many good young horses at his disposal every year, it seems only a matter of time.