03/06/2008 12:00AM

Circular Quay returns to the scene

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Todd Pletcher has been a regular participant in the Louisiana Derby throughout the 21st century, finishing second in the 2000 edition with More Than Ready, third with Pollard's Vision in 2004, and second with Vicarage in 2005. Pletcher is back this year on Louisiana Derby Day - but not for the derby itself. Instead, he will start last year's Louisiana Derby winner, Circular Quay, in the $500,000 New Orleans Handicap. Pletcher also entered Magna Graduate in the New Orleans Handicap, and has horses for three other stakes races among the six on Saturday.

Circular Quay hasn't won a race since he captured the Louisiana Derby by more than two lengths with an electric move on the far turn. Circular Quay didn't race again until the Kentucky Derby, where he finished sixth. After a fifth-place finish in the Preakness and a distant sixth on turf in the Virginia Derby, Circular Quay was done for his 3-year-old season.

On the surface of things, his 4-year-old debut in the San Carlos Handicap on Feb. 16 at Santa Anita, which produced a fifth-place finish, was not obviously better than his last three starts of 2007, but Pletcher said he retains confidence in Circular Quay. At seven furlongs, the San Carlos was shorter than Circular Quay's best distance, and the synthetic track over which he raced may not be his best surface, either.

"We wanted to get him started, and there weren't a lot of options," Pletcher said. "We had some reservations that it'd be too short for him. We were hoping for a fast pace, but the first quarter went in 23 seconds. I thought he picked it up in the stretch and galloped out well."

Pletcher also said that Circular Quay should be able to tap deeper into his talent this year than last, when he was still immature. "Physically, he's really blossomed now," Pletcher said. "He's holding his weight a lot better now."

In the six-furlong Duncan Kenner Stakes, Pletcher brings back King of the Roxy, who hasn't raced since he finished seventh in the King's Bishop last Aug. 25 at Saratoga.

"He came out of that race a tired horse, and we decided to give him a vacation," Pletcher said. "He's come back well."

The distance of the $200,000 Duncan Kenner is shorter than King of the Roxy's best, Pletcher believes, but as with Circular Quay's last start, the idea is to get the horse's 2008 campaign going.

Pletcher also will send out Twilight Meteor in the $500,000 Mervin Muniz, and he has two fillies - Chagall and Iron Lips - for the $100,000 Bienville, a filly-and-mare turf sprint. Iron Lips, who makes her first start outside France, figures to be among the Bienville favorites.

Highest Class ducks Indian Blessing

While many assumed that Highest Class would use a promising third-place finish last month in the Silverbulletday Stakes as a springboard to the Fair Grounds Oaks, trainer Neil Howard left the door open all along for a different course of action. And when entries for the Fair Grounds Oaks were taken Monday, it was a Howard-trained horse of much less apparent talent, Wisconsin Lady, who was part of a tiny four-horse field, rather than Highest Class.

Fair Grounds rarely lets races go with only five horses, to say nothing of four, but the Oaks had only eight nominations, and with the presence of top fillies Indian Blessing and Proud Spell, it seemed fated to have a short field.

Indian Blessing is a major reason that Howard said Highest Class would make her next start in the Bonnie Miss Stakes at Gulfstream Park. "I know there will be some good horses there, but we didn't think it was in our best interest to chase Indian Blessing at a mile and a sixteenth again," he said.

The Bonnie Miss is contested at 1 1/8 miles, and Howard believes Highest Class needs to race at least that far to be most effective.

"If she's good enough to get to the Kentucky Oaks, we thought this would be the best way to get her there," Howard said.

Quick turnaround for Asmussen

Trainer Steve Asmussen spent more time getting to and from Dubai than he actually spent in Dubai watching Curlin win his Dubai World Cup prep last Thursday.

"I was on the ground 30 hours or something like that," Asmussen said.

To see Curlin have basically a perfect lead-in to the $6 million World Cup on March 29 made the intense travel regimen easier to take. Asmussen said his schedule would be much the same for the World Cup itself. "I'll be out on the first flight the next morning," he said.

Curlin will have three works before the World Cup, Asmussen said, the first of which will come Sunday or Monday.

Asmussen himself watched a slew of talented horses work at Fair Grounds on Sunday and Monday. Among them was Z Fortune, who worked six furlongs in company with the talented 3-year-old Kings Silver Son on Monday, and remains on track for the Rebel Stakes next weekend at Oaklawn Park.

* Thursday's featured ninth race is a six-furlong sprint open to Louisiana-bred second-level allowance horses or $50,000 claimers. Anything But Quiet and Princess Deelite look like prime players in a seven-horse field.