07/31/2006 11:00PM

A clear mission for Flower Alley

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Flower Alley, at Saratoga on Monday, starts his journey to the BC Classic in Saturday's Whitney.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - As a 3-year-old, Flower Alley was asked to do a lot in a short period of time. Only 78 days passed from the time he won his first race to the day he stepped into the Churchill Downs starting gate as a 41-1 shot in the Kentucky Derby.

But in the second half of the year, no 3-year-old was better. Flower Alley won the Jim Dandy and Travers, and after a hiccup in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, he finished the year with a second-place finish to the 5-year-old Saint Liam in the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic.

This year has gone differently. Flower Alley was asked to do virtually nothing for the first six months, but in the second half - a 91-day period - he'll be asked to win four of the most prestigious races on the calendar, beginning with Saturday's Grade 1, $750,000 Whitney Handicap at Saratoga. The Woodward on Sept. 2, the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 7, and the Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 4 are also on the docket.

It's a schedule that was mapped out last fall.

Following Flower Alley's 3-year-old season, in which he earned $2.4 million and was a finalist for the 3-year-old championship, his owner, Eugene Melnyk, had two decisions to make. One was whether Flower Alley would race as a 4-year-old. The other was whether a 4-year-old campaign would include the $6 million Dubai World Cup, run in March at Nad Al Sheba.

Trainer Todd Pletcher explained that running in the World Cup would mean virtually no down time for Flower Alley. He would have to remain in training throughout the fall and early winter and run in a race like the Donn Handicap in February. That would be after a nine-race campaign as a 3-year-old that saw him run in eight graded stakes, including a win in the Lane's End, seconds in the Arkansas Derby and Dwyer, and a ninth in the Kentucky Derby.

Melnyk quickly nixed the World Cup, and the decision was made to point for the 2006 Breeders' Cup Classic with four or five races beforehand. Thus, Flower Alley had 90 days off at Melnyk's Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala, Fla.

Flower Alley resumed training in February under the tutelage of farm manager Phil Hronec. After 30 days of jogging and galloping, Hronec worked Flower Alley four times over the one-mile dirt surface at Winding Oaks before shipping him to Pletcher at Churchill Downs.

"He's always been a very sound horse," Hronec said. "It isn't like he turned around or anything. He put on weight, relaxed, got a good freshener. When we sent him back to Todd, we were pleased with him. We told Todd if we had four or five races this year that'd be plenty. We're looking forward to the Whitney to see how he stacks up."

Flower Alley will be favored in a Whitney field that is expected to include multiple Grade 1 winner Invasor, Premium Tap, Siphon City, Sun King, Survivalist, Wanderin By, and possibly West Virginia.

Pletcher said he had initially thought of getting two races into Flower Alley before the Whitney, but he didn't feel he had Flower Alley ready until mid-June. Fearing an allowance race wouldn't fill, Pletcher pointed Flower Alley for the Grade 3 Salvator Mile on June 24 at Monmouth, where Flower Alley rolled to a 3 1/4-length victory in the slop.

"In a perfect world I would have had two really good races going into the Whitney," Pletcher said. "I think he ran well enough. He's trained well enough where we'd have him ready to run in the Whitney. His next race might be better than the second one."

The Woodward, run Sept. 2, became attractive to Pletcher when the New York Racing Association opted to move it to Saratoga from Belmont, thus making it a two-turn race.

Last year, Flower Alley really blossomed at Saratoga, where he became just the sixth horse to win both the Travers and Jim Dandy.

"I thought the Jim Dandy was the breakthrough performance we had been looking for," Pletcher said. "He ran well in the Lane's End. He ran a respectable race in the Arkansas Derby and a pretty good race in the Kentucky Derby. The Jim Dandy was a pivotal race that I thought might decide how good he might be, and he took it to the next level."

Having spotted the likes of Lava Man and Bernardini many lengths in the race for Horse of the Year, Flower Alley is ready to begin his 13-week march to the Breeders' Cup Classic and a possible showdown with those two at Churchill Downs on Nov. 4.

Pletcher said Flower Alley is as good a prospect for the Breeders' Cup Classic as he has had in a long time.

"Left Bank's 5-year-old year, he was as good as anybody," said Pletcher, referring to the horse he trained to the Eclipse Award as champion older male of 2002. "He was a racehorse that could do many different things. Flower Alley is versatile, too. He's more of a mile-and-an-eighth to a mile-and-a-quarter horse."