04/12/2006 11:00PM

Bluegrass Cat pressed to rejoin top flight

Bluegrass Cat tries to show he is among Derby elite.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Of the record 38 horses trainer Todd Pletcher nominated to this year's Triple Crown, none was more highly regarded than Bluegrass Cat. With season-ending victories at 2 in the Nashua and Remsen stakes, proven ability at a distance, and a glittering pedigree, Bluegrass Cat was at or near the top of anyone's shortlist of Kentucky Derby contenders.

He is still prominent, but the polish is not quite as lustrous as it was three months ago. Bluegrass Cat captured the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in his 3-year-old debut, then was upset by Deputy Glitters when favored at 2-5 in last month's Tampa Bay Derby. So, when Bluegrass Cat runs on Saturday in the Grade 1, $750,000 at Keeneland, he will be attempting to again place himself alongside the likes of Brother Derek, Discreet Cat, Lawyer Ron, and Sweetnorthernsaint as this year's elite Derby contenders.

The Blue Grass is one of two significant stakes for Derby prospects on Saturday, along with the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. Both are part of a Premier Pick 4 wager that begins with the Instant Racing Breeders' Cup Stakes at Oaklawn and includes the Grade 2, $400,000 Commonwealth Breeders' Cup Stakes for sprinters at Keeneland.

Both the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby will be televised live on ABC in a telecast that begins at 5 p.m. Eastern. The Blue Grass is the ninth race on a 10-race Keeneland card that begins at 1:15 p.m. and also includes the Grade 2, $200,000 Jenny Wiley Stakes for female turf runners.

The forecast is for a high temperature of 80 degrees on Saturday, with a 30 percent chance of thunderstorms.

There is every reason to believe Bluegrass Cat can take a significant step forward in the Blue Grass. He has been training sensationally at Churchill Downs, is getting off a Tampa Bay track that has often tripped up well-regarded horses in years past, and has a stalking style that should play well at Keeneland. Now, if only he can keep his shoes on, everything could be fine.

Bluegrass Cat lost his right front shoe in the Tampa Bay Derby. His jockey, John Velazquez, theorized it happened on the far turn, when Bluegrass Cat lost position after moving into contention. Todd Pletcher, who trains Bluegrass Cat, said the shoe was gone when the colt came back to be unsaddled.

"John said when he switched to his left lead, his hind end slipped out from underneath him a couple of times," Pletcher said. "That's where he kind of lost the position he had gotten up to that point."

Bluegrass Cat sputtered on the turn - "At the three-eighths pole, I thought he might be fifth," Pletcher said - then re-rallied for second.

Both races at Tampa were at 1 1/16 miles. The Blue Grass is at 1 1/8 miles, the same distance at which Bluegrass Cat - who is by Storm Cat and out of an A.P. Indy mare - captured the Remsen at Aqueduct last fall.

For Bluegrass Cat to win, he will have to catch First Samurai, whose front-running style is ideal for Keeneland. First Samurai most recently was placed first, via disqualification, in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park on March 4. Keeneland's surface and the desire of Kentucky-based owners Bruce Lunsford and Lansdon Robbins III to run here were factors in the decision to go to the Blue Grass, according to trainer Frank Brothers.

"There was a very, very good case for running in the Blue Grass," Brothers said. "It gave him more time, and if he ran well the timing between that and the Derby is fine. It's home, here in Kentucky. It's usually a speed-biased track, which won't bother me with this horse. If he was a different type of horse, I might have considered another race."

Brothers won the Blue Grass in 1997 with Pulpit.

"First Samurai is a very laid-back horse," Brothers said. "Pulpit was a high-strung, nervous horse. We spent most of the time trying to settle him down."

Of the other seven runners, the most intriguing is Strong Contender, who has won twice against inferior competition, but has done it with panache. He also is quick, and is drawn just inside First Samurai, in post 4. His hurdles are significant, though. He is making his stakes debut, is trying two turns for the first time, and is conceding experience to his two primary rivals.

Sinister Minister, who was second in the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate, also figures to be part of a lively pace.

Court Folly finished quickly to be third in the seven-furlong Swale Stakes at Gulfstream on March 4. This will be his first race around two turns.

Little Cliff was fourth and Storm Treasure sixth in the Tampa Bay Derby.

Seaside Retreat was second in the Lane's End Stakes at Turfway last time out. Sadler's Trick defeated maidens at Turfway the same day.

The field

Blue Grass / Keeneland
Purse: $750,000; 1 1/8 miles; Grade 1

1Little CliffC. Nakatani10-1
2Bluegrass CatJ. Velazquez5-2
3Storm TreasureM. Guidry15-1
4Strong ContenderE. Prado4-1
5First SamuraiR. Bejarano8-5
6Court FollyJ. Castellano12-1
7Sinister MinisterG. Gomez15-1
8Sadler's TrickJ. Leparoux15-1
9Seaside RetreatP. Husbands15-1

* All starters carry 123 pounds
* Track morning line odds
* Television: Saturday, 5-6 p.m. (Eastern), ABC