03/16/2006 12:00AM

Bluegrass Cat towers over eight opponents

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Bluegrass Cat looms over field at Tampa Bay.

Chances are there will be a few surprises around the country with four Kentucky Derby preps on tap Saturday, but it's not likely any of those surprises will take place in Tampa, where Bluegrass Cat is an imposing figure compared with his eight rivals in the $250,000 Tampa Bay Derby. The Grade 3, 1 1/8-mile Tampa Bay Derby is the highlight of the meet's cornerstone event, Festival Day, and tops an outstanding 13-race program that includes three other stakes.

opened his 3-year-old campaign last month with a victory in Tampa's Sam F. Davis Stakes, and his main competition on Saturday figures to come from two of his victims in that race, Deputy Glitters and Little Cliff, who finished second and fourth, respectively. Both will have to improve dramatically or hope that Bluegrass Cat regresses off his 2006 debut if they are to have any chance of springing a major upset.

Bluegrass Cat, a homebred son of Storm Cat owned by the WinStar Farm, closed out his 2-year-old campaign as one of the highest-ranked members of his division after winning his final three starts, including Aqueduct's Grade 2, 1 1/8-mile Remsen Stakes. He picked right up where he left off in the Sam Davis, overcoming some trouble on the opening turn to beat Deputy Glitters by a widening 1 1/4 lengths as the 3-5 favorite. His time of 1:44.17 for the 1 1/16 miles set a stakes record and was only four-fifths of a second off the track record.

"We got everything we could have hoped for out of his last race, a good effort but not a gut-wrenching one," said Pletcher. "He's trained well since. Everything's gone according to plan so far. I'm not sure what the pace scenario looks like for this race yet, but hopefully we'll be able to work out a similar trip on Saturday - although obviously you're going to have to pick it up a little with each successive race."

ran the best race of his career in the Sam Davis as a result of finally being able to stretch out around two turns, according to his trainer, Tom Albertrani.

"This is a horse we've always liked a lot, but he just didn't want to be put off his feet chasing quick early fractions in one-turn races," said Albertrani. "He wants to be comfortable, which is exactly what happened in the first race at Tampa."

Trainer Nick Zito said doesn't necessarily have to defeat Bluegrass Cat on Saturday to continue on the Kentucky Derby trail. He just would like to see him get a little closer than in their first meeting, when his horse was forced to race wide throughout after breaking from a tough post.

"I'd just like to find a couple of more lengths on Saturday," said Zito, who also will run Ice N Lemon in the Tampa Derby. "If

I can do that, I think I can find a couple of more when we get back to New York. And that's what getting to the Kentucky Derby is all about."

The field

Tampa Bay Derby
Purse: $250,000; 1 1/16 miles; Grade 3

1El LoboD. Centeno11612-1
2Bluegrass CatJ. Velazquez1223-5
3Storm TreasureM. Smith1168-1
4Winnies Tigger TooJ. Rocco11630-1
5a-Little CliffJ. Rose1168-1
6Deputy GlittersJ. Lezcano1169-2
7Irish MajestyJ. Castellano11615-1
8a-Ice N LemonC. Velasquez1168-1
9ReaffirmedR. Landry11612-1

* a- Coupled
* Odds by Kenny Peck
* Television: Saturday, 6 p.m. (Eastern), ESPN