03/30/2006 12:00AM

Bandini vs. Noble Causeway in Skip Away

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Trainer Todd Pletcher could have been tempted to jump Bandini right back into Grade 1 competition after Bandini returned from a 10-month layoff and set a track record in allowance company this winter.

Instead, Pletcher opted to take a more conservative route by keeping Bandini at Gulfstream Park for one more start, in Saturday's $100,000 Skip Away Handicap.

The Grade 3, 1 1/8-mile Skip Away drew a field of eight but may turn out to be a two-horse race between Bandini and Noble Causeway, who also returns to graded stakes competition off a good allowance win at Gulfstream earlier in the meet.

, a grand-looking son of Fusaichi Pegasus, jumped to the top of the 3-year-old division during the winter and spring of 2005 by finishing second in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth and winning the Grade 1 Blue Grass by six lengths. But he was forced to the sidelines for the remainder of the season when he exited his 19th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby with a small chip in his right front ankle.

Pletcher finally got Bandini back to the races on March 1 and was all smiles after the colt recovered from a poor start to win a third-level optional claiming race by 3 3/4 lengths. His time of 1:34.19 for the mile established a course record that was subsequently lowered to 1:34.05 by Showing Up 10 days later.

"I thought having him run a mile as well as he did the first time was tremendous, and he looks and is doing great," said Pletcher, who trains Bandini for owners Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith. "There were a number of reasons why I decided to run him in this spot instead of waiting for the Oaklawn Handicap next week. His record here is good, I've had some problems with how some of my horses have either shipped to or handled the track at Oaklawn, this race is a much better fit at this time, and I could get Johnny [Velazquez] to ride him."

Pletcher said if all goes well in the Skip Away, Bandini would likely return to Grade 1 competition in the Metropolitan Mile at Aqueduct.

Trainer Nick Zito was equally pleased with Noble Causeway's last performance, a last-to-first 1 1/4-length second-level allowance win on March 5. The outing was the second during the comeback of Noble Causeway, who finished second behind stablemate High Fly in the 2005 Florida Derby.

"This is an important step for him," said Zito. "Sometimes you have to press on if you're going to obtain victory, and this is a good time to press on with him. He's in good rhythm right now, and I like the way he's been progressing. The Skip Away was the logical spot, although I didn't expect to catch a horse like Bandini in the field."

will carry 114 pounds, three fewer than highweight Bandini. Jeremy Rose will ride Noble Causeway.

Contante and Whos Crying Now, second and fourth in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap, might be best of the rest of the field, which also includes We Can Seek, O'Connell's, Network, and Zoffinger.