01/31/2006 1:00AM

Bigger role for Magna Graduate

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Magna Graduate has won three straight for trainer Todd Pletcher, including the Discovery Handicap (above).

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - When you have a barn the size of Todd Pletcher's, one that in 2005 set a single-season record for purse earnings by a trainer, there is bound to be an embarrassment of riches. And now with this year's first major weekend of racing nearing in south Florida, Pletcher is taking aim at a number of stakes races on Saturday at Gulfstream Park, largely with horses that are the understudies to his stable's marquee names.

Bluegrass Cat, Pletcher's best 3-year-old colt, is skipping the Holy Bull Stakes, but Pletcher will have at least two others in that race and another in the Hutcheson Stakes. Flower Alley, who was the second-best 3-year-old in the country last year, behind Afleet Alex, is bypassing the Donn Handicap, the first Grade 1 race of the year for older horses, but Pletcher has a suitable replacement in the vastly improved Magna Graduate.

Magna Graduate was a second-tier 3-year-old the first part of last year, when he was fourth in the at Churchill Downs. He might not be on the same level as Flower Alley, but he's a lot closer now than he was six months ago.

"He had run some very good races before we even got him," said Pletcher, who took over the training of Magna Graduate when owner Elisabeth Alexander transferred him from Patrick Byrne. "The only thing Mrs. Alexander, who is from Ohio, said was that as long as the horse was doing well, she wanted to run in the ."

That was Magna Graduate's first start for Pletcher, and he finished second in that race after a poor start and wide trip. He then was second in the , when he was forced to rally along the rail on a day when, Pletcher said, "the inside was dead."

"He ran good in both races, but with a little luck, he might have won both," Pletcher said.

He has not lost since. A victory in the preceded those in the Discovery and the Clark.

"The Clark was the more prestigious race, but I think his best race was the Discovery," Pletcher said. "He ran much-improved races last fall, and he has continued to develop physically. The last three races kind of stamped him as a horse moving his way toward the top of the handicap division if he keeps developing."

Pletcher has horses in south Florida spread among training centers at Palm Meadows, Payson Park, and Palm Beach Downs. Magna Graduate has been with assistant Michelle Nihei at Palm Beach Downs. Palm Beach and Palm Meadows are about five minutes apart, and about 45 minutes from Gulfstream Park. Payson Park is another 50 minutes farther north. Pletcher has about 70 horses at Palm Meadows, 38 at Payson, and 16 at Palm Beach.

"Basically what I did, for the most part, was leave the horses that Michelle had last fall at Churchill Downs at Palm Beach Downs," Pletcher said. "He is doing well there. He likes the surface. Because of that, I just decided to keep him there. He's been a low-maintenance horse. He seems to be doing extremely well there. And it's so close I can stop over any time."

, 4, is a son of Honor Grades. "He's not a real tall horse, but he's a well-built horse who should mature as he gets older," Pletcher said. "He's very professional, but he's very good feeling. It wouldn't be uncommon for him to get on his hind legs and show off a little bit."

Flower Alley, meanwhile, is in light training in Ocala, Fla., at owner Eugene Melnyk's Winding Oaks Farm, "just jogging and galloping," Pletcher said.

"He'll come in here sometime in February," Pletcher said. "The plan was we wanted to give him a significant break, not come back too soon. Physically, he's fine. But the strategy was to have him to ready for the second half of the year. He'll have a summer and fall campaign. We'll point for races like the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders' Cup Classic."

Those are the kind of races that Magna Graduate might end up in, too.