03/30/2005 12:00AM

Bandini and Closing Argument need Plan B

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Their pessimism proved correct. As the Florida Derby approached, trainers Todd Pletcher and Kiaran McLaughlin both were skeptical that colts they had hoped to run in the Grade 1 race would actually make the field.

So it was not the least bit surprising that when entries were drawn Wednesday morning, neither Bandini, trained by Pletcher, nor Closing Argument, trained by McLaughlin, were among the nine prospective starters. Each colt has been suffering from a foot bruise in recent days.

Pletcher, who had been coy about Bandini's condition after the colt missed a scheduled work early in the week, said Wednesday that the problem is relatively minor and that, without further setbacks, he is optimistic the colt will be able to compete in the April 16 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Bandini apparently suffered the foot bruise during routine training at Palm Meadows over the weekend.

Likewise, Closing Argument should be able to make the next round of prep races if he improves as expected, said McLaughlin, who has not decided which race will be next. Closing Argument also developed a bruise last weekend at Palm Meadows.

With their defections, the Florida Derby lost two of its four probable prerace favorites. From three starts at the Gulfstream meet, Bandini had two wins and a runner-up finish behind High Fly in the March 5 Fountain of Youth Stakes, while Closing Argument upset High Fly in the Feb. 5 Holy Bull Stakes, Closing Argument's most recent start.

Their absences left the uncoupled Nick Zito-trained pair of High Fly and Noble Causeway as the program favorites. Chuck Streva, who sets the morning line at Gulfstream, has pegged High Fly at 8-5 and Noble Causeway at 3-1.

Owners giveth, owners taketh away

Zito, the only trainer to attend the Florida Derby breakfast draw, told the assembled crowd he has been reluctant to say a word to Bill White about High Fly. Zito assumed the training of High Fly when Charlotte Weber of Live Oak Plantation took the colt away from White shortly after the colt incurred his first career defeat in the Feb. 5 Holy Bull.

"I've had horses taken away from me before, and it's not a good feeling," said Zito. "I know how Bill feels. When you're a trainer, you don't like to lose horses. He did a great job with the horse. It's human nature not to want to talk about it. Bill is a nice guy, a class act, and he's going to be with Live Oak for a long time. Hopefully he'll get another great one for them."

Four other stakes on Saturday card

Even without the $1 million Florida Derby, the Saturday card at Gulfstream would be a terrific one. Four other stakes, all for older horses, will serve as support on a 13-race program. Here are the prospective starters for each:

- Grade 2, $150,000 Pan American Handicap, 1 1/2 miles (turf): Gigli, Change Course, Navesink River, Quest Star, Art Variety, European, Scooter Roach, and Stage Call.

- Grade 2, $150,000 Orchid Handicap, fillies and mares, 1 1/2 miles (turf): Honey Ryder, Briviesca, Galloping Gal, Pretty Jane, Ellieonthemarch, Stormin' Dana, and Coquinerie.

- Grade 3, $100,000 Skip Away, 1 1/8 miles: Eurosilver, Spite the Devil, The Lady's Groom, Unigold, Zakocity, and possibly Gygistar or Twilight Road.

- $100,000 Artax Handicap, 7 1/2 furlongs: Christine's Outlaw, Kelly's Landing, Super Frolic, Value Plus, Sir Oscar, Stockholder, Kennel Up, and possibly Gygistar or Twilight Road.

Romans checks on Florida string

Dale Romans was at Gulfstream to look in on his 12-horse string Wednesday morning. Since returning from the Middle East and his victory with Roses in May in the $6 million Dubai World Cup last Saturday, Romans has been the focus of intense speculation about his role in the ongoing strangles situation. Horses trained by Romans have tested positive for the bacterial disease in south Florida and Kentucky.

Romans declined to speak on the record, "at least right now," about strangles, but said he would remain in south Florida "as long as I have to" until his horses are healthy.

Meanwhile, Romans said he has sent Roses in May to Kesmarc, a Lexington, Ky., clinic where the horse will swim and undergo hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

"I'll bring him back in three weeks or a month," he said. "I guess our main goal after this is the Whitney" at Saratoga.

Kitten's Joy, the 2004 turf champion trained by Romans, has had one workout following a layoff, getting a half-mile in 50 seconds March 11 on the Palm Meadows turf. Kitten's Joy underwent knee surgery shortly after finishing second in the Oct. 30 Breeders' Cup Turf.

Low attendance expected for derby

Weather should not be a factor here Saturday. The forecast calls for a 30 percent chance of rain and a high temperature near 80.

Primarily because of the ongoing construction at Gulfstream, officials are predicting an ontrack crowd of 15,000, if not fewer. The Florida Derby's all-time low attendance figure of 17,918 came during the race's first running, in 1952.

Triple Crown newcomers to be tested

Of the 13 late nominees to the Triple Crown, two will run Saturday in the Florida Derby: B. B. Best and Evil Minister.

B. B. Best is 4 for 9 and most recently ran a game third in the Fountain of Youth. Evil Minister's form has tailed off since he won the six-furlong Sapling at Monmouth Park last summer. He is the longest shot on the Florida Derby morning line at 20-1.

Out of Pride out to start new streak

Out of Pride, whose six-race win streak came to an end in her last start, and Aesculus may vie for favoritism in Friday's $37,000 allowance feature for fillies and mares on the turf.

Out of Pride finished second, beaten 1 1/4 lengths, after being forced to check in early stretch against $50,000 claiming rivals here Feb. 27. She was claimed by trainer Chantal Paquette.

Aesculus finished second on Feb. 21 in her U.S. turf debut.