Updated on 09/17/2011 10:12PM

Bandini golden in Blue Grass

Bandini rockets home a six-length winner in Saturday's Toyota Blue Grass Stakes. It's one of the top winning margins in the race's 81-year history.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Bandini ran himself squarely into the Kentucky Derby picture with an authoritative victory Saturday in the 81st running of the at Keeneland before a record crowd of 33,621.

With John Velazquez riding for trainer Todd Pletcher, Bandini blew away what had been widely considered a well-matched field in the $750,000 Blue Grass. Racing several paths wide throughout what Velazquez termed a "very comfortable" stalking trip, Bandini started his winning move in the final turn of the 1 1/8-mile race before drawing off to prevail by six lengths, tied for the fourth-largest winning margin in Blue Grass history.

High Limit finished second, three lengths before Closing Argument in third place. It was another neck back to Sun King, who was followed by Consolidator, Spanish Chestnut, and Mr Sword.

Bandini, owned by Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith, returned $8 to win. The smashing triumph means he will advance to the May 7 Derby at Churchill Downs as one of the top wagering choices.

"We'll bring him to Churchill and maybe breeze him once," said Pletcher. "We'll just keep doing what we've been doing with him."

Bandini, by 2000 Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus, had been forced to skip the April 2 Florida Derby after incurring a minor foot bruise about a week beforehand. Leading up to the Blue Grass, Pletcher insisted the foot had fully healed, and the results clearly showed in Bandini's superb effort Saturday.

Bandini developed swiftly at Gulfstream Park this winter by winning a maiden and allowance race, then running second in the March 5 Fountain of Youth Stakes. The Grade 1 Blue Grass was his first stakes win.

"He was clearly on his game today," said Pletcher. "He began to mentally mature after the Fountain of Youth, and obviously it all came together today."

On an afternoon of spectacular spring weather, Spanish Chestnut grabbed an open lead while setting fractions of 23.41 seconds, 46.65, and 1:10.56. High Limit took the lead approaching the quarter pole, but after that it was all Bandini, who finished in 1:50.16 over a track rated fast but that has been producing mediocre times.

Wagering on the Blue Grass reflected the competitiveness of the race: High Limit was the 5-2 favorite, followed closely by Bandini, Consolidator, and Sun King all at 3-1. Among the also-rans, it was not completely clear who would point to the Derby, although trainers Nick Zito and D. Wayne Lukas said in the immediate aftermath that their respective horses, Sun King and Consolidator, most likely would run.

The previous Keeneland attendance record of 31,028 was set last April on Lexington Stakes Day.

The largest victory margin in the Blue Grass is 15 lengths by Arts and Letters in 1969.