02/18/2006 1:00AM

Bluegrass Cat starts off right

Stephanie Van Minos/Tom Cooley
Bluegrass Cat, making his 3-year-old debut off a three-month layoff, wins the 1 1/16-mile Sam F. Davis in stakes-record time of 1:44.17.

OLDSMAR, Fla. - Mission accomplished.

Trainer Todd Pletcher got all he could have asked or hoped for from his top Kentucky Derby prospect, Bluegrass Cat, in Saturday's $125,000 at Tampa Bay Downs.

Bluegrass Cat overcame some early bumping, showed the ability to rate off the pace, then outfinished 63-1 Deputy Glitters to win the Sam F. Davis by a widening 1 1/4 lengths in making his first start since winning the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes on Nov. 26. It was another 4 1/4 lengths back to R Loyal Man, who finished third in a scratch-reduced field of 10 3-year-olds.

Despite having been idle for nearly three months, Bluegrass Cat went off as the 3-5 favorite and paid $3.40 after covering the 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.17 under regular rider John Velazquez. The time set a stakes record and was just four-fifths of a second off the track record.

"Our objective today was for him to run a good race without overdoing it and get him used to the track to bring him back here for the next one," said Pletcher, referring to the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby on March 18. "But we also wanted to come in and win, and we were hoping his quality would carry him through even if he wasn't quite 100 percent fit for this race."

Bluegrass Cat, a homebred son of Storm Cat owned by WinStar LLC, was in a bit tight between horses entering the first turn, but Velazquez quickly got him to settle and ease out just behind the pacesetters Laptop Computer and Deputy Glitters. Bluegrass Cat launched his bid three wide approaching the stretch, gained a short lead in early stretch, then gradually edged clear in the final sixteenth of a mile.

Deputy Glitters was widest into the first turn, stalked the pace for six furlongs, rallied in company while racing just inside Bluegrass Cat turning for home, and was easily second-best although no match for the winner.

Pletcher said he believes Bluegrass Cat deserves to be considered among the top Kentucky Derby contenders in the country.

"He's already won the Remsen at a mile and one-eighth and is definitely the most accomplished of all the 3-year-olds we have nominated for the Derby," said Pletcher. "He's certainly at the top of our list right now and maybe at the top of everybody's."

* Tampa Bay Downs set an all-time handle record on Saturday when $7,430,768 was bet on its 12-race card. Saturday was the first time that Tampa has ever handled more than $7 million.