04/01/2006 12:00AM

Bandini in control start to finish

Bill Denver/EQUI-PHOTO
Bandini wins the Skip Away Handicap on Saturday at Gulfstream Park.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The groundwork has been duly laid for a huge year for Bandini. After his 3-year-old season ended prematurely when he suffered an ankle injury in the Kentucky Derby last May, the flashy colt has returned with a vengeance, as he won his second start of a new campaign with frightening ease Saturday at Gulfstream Park.

From the opening strides of the $100,000 , there seemed little doubt that Bandini had seven rivals at his mercy. Taken comfortably in hand by jockey John Velazquez, Bandini maintained a measured lead through steady fractions before bursting clear at the top of the stretch and winning the 1 1/8-mile race by 1 1/4 lengths. Velazquez did little more than show his mount the whip down the stretch.

"I gave him his head down the backstretch and he did the rest," said Velazquez.

Bandini, by Fusaichi Pegasus, returned $2.80 to win. Last winter, the colt had become a major Derby contender with three races at Gulfstream, where he won twice and finished second in the Fountain of Youth. He then won the Blue Grass Stakes by six lengths to become the 6-1 third choice in the 131st Derby, in which he incurred his injury and finished

19th of 20. Duly regrouped, Bandini returned to action March 1 at Gulfstream with an easy victory in an allowance race, setting a track record (since broken) for the one-mile distance.

We Can Seek, a 37-1 shot, got a terrific rail trip under Rafael Bejarano to finish second in the Grade 3 Skip Away, another five lengths before O'Connell's, a 30-1 shot. Noble Causeway, the 5-1 third choice, finished fourth, and Contante, the 5-1 second choice, was seventh.

Pletcher said the May 29 Met Mile at Belmont is the probable next start for Bandini, who earned $60,000 and now has a bankroll of $646,380.

"This horse has matured quite a bit from last year," said Pletcher. "He was able to get to the front and do what we expected."

Bandini, who carried high weight of 117 pounds, finished in 1:49.11 after splits of 24.47 seconds, 48.37, and 1:11.73.