08/27/2003 11:00PM

Chapel Royal has done no wrong


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Todd Pletcher did not bring Chapel Royal to Saturday's $200,000 Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga as much as Chapel Royal brought Pletcher.

Now, Chapel Royal stands on the precipice of getting that all-important Grade 1 win that his connections hoped would come when they plunked down $1.2 million for him back in February.

Chapel Royal, owned by Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith, enters the seven-furlong Hopeful unbeaten in three starts with a combined winning margin of 20 1/4 lengths. He won the Grade 3 Flash at Belmont from on the pace over a fast track and the Grade 2 Sanford at Saratoga from just off the pace on sloppy footing. Chapel Royal is the top 2-year-old on the East Coast, if not in the entire country.

As physically imposing as Chapel Royal is to Pletcher, it's the colt's mind that has impressed him so much.

"It seems like a lot of times your precocious 2-year-olds, the ones that are ready in May or June, will be relatively speedballs, high-energy personalities that jiggy-jog on the way to the track and back," Pletcher said. "This horse is just the opposite. He's so laid back, nothing fazes him."

While brilliance at 2 often doesn't translate into success as a 3-year-old, Pletcher said he can't worry in August about next year's Kentucky Derby.

"Everybody wants to have a Derby horse, but not every horse is geared to the Derby," said Pletcher, who has won a record 33 races at this meet, including a dozen with 2-year-olds. "This horse, I can see him stretching out. I've never seen the bottom of this horse. Maybe he'll be a More Than Ready type that keeps going. If you gear everything around trying to pinpoint the Derby, that would be foolish."

More Than Ready was a horse Pletcher trained who was precocious enough to win four stakes as a 2-year-old in 1999. The following year, he returned at 3 to run a respectable fourth in the Kentucky Derby, and he won the Grade 1 King's Bishop at Saratoga.

Chapel Royal is a son of Montbrook out of the mare Cut Class Leanne. He was purchased on Feb. 5 by bloodstock agent Demi O'Byrne for $1.2 million, a record for the Ocala Breeders' Sales Company's select juvenile sale.

When Pletcher got Chapel Royal in February, his owners told him not to hurry to get the colt to the races. But as soon as Pletcher put him in training, Chapel Royal was a quick study. By May, he was ready to run.

"Demi emphasized they were in no rush, but everything was coming so easy to him there was no point in holding him back," Pletcher said. "The only way I could not have him ready when he got ready was to stop training him."

Chapel Royal debuted on May 15 at Belmont Park. Breaking from the outside post in a seven-horse field, he veered outside when the gates opened, quickly recovered to duel with Snow Eagle, and drew clear to beat that rival by 9 1/4 lengths.

Four weeks later, Chapel Royal won the Flash Stakes by 5 1/4 lengths, dueling with Hasslefree for 3 1/2 furlongs before drawing clear. In the Sanford, Pletcher decided to change tactics, instructing jockey John Velazquez to see how Chapel Royal would react to sitting behind horses. He handled it like a pro, sitting fourth while racing along the inside entering the turn and rolling through the stretch to win by 5 3/4 lengths once Velazquez got him in the clear.

"I knew he had a good mind, I knew he had a lot of speed - to put all that together in a race like that was pretty special," Pletcher said.

Pletcher has a lot of potentially special 2-year-olds. Limehouse, who is also entered in the Hopeful, has won two stakes; Heckle, who is injured, won the Tremont; and Deputy Storm won the Tyro. Value Plus, an impressive maiden winner, is being pointed to the Grade 1 Futurity at Belmont on Sept. 14.

But Chapel Royal is clearly the most accomplished 2-year-old in the barn. Provided he comes out of the Hopeful in good shape, Chapel Royal will be pointed to the Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont on Oct. 4 and then the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita on Oct. 25.

"It's a great schedule from this point out if we can stay on it, because he's got plenty of space between his races," Pletcher said. "He's obviously a horse that runs well fresh. Now, we need to get lucky."

In Chapel Royal's case, it's better to be good than lucky.