03/26/2007 11:00PM

Counting on the right timing

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DELRAY BEACH, Fla. - Beyond the more compelling legacies that Barbaro left behind when he died in January, he blazed a trail that becomes relevant as the 56th Florida Derby approaches: He was the first Kentucky Derby winner in 50 years to enter after such a long layoff. Barbaro won the 2006 Florida Derby by a half-length over Sharp Humor, then was given five weeks off before romping by 6 1/2 lengths at Churchill Downs.

Todd Pletcher, the reigning three-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer, will be represented by the likely favorite, Scat Daddy, when the Florida Derby is run Saturday at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Fla., and he is acutely aware of how Barbaro erased a stigma last spring.

"I'm glad Barbaro put all that to rest," Pletcher said Monday at tranquil Palm Beach Downs, the training center where many of his best horses, including Scat Daddy, have spent the winter. "For whatever reason, a lot of our horses tend to do better when they have that kind of time between races. I know all the statistics for the Derby said otherwise, but at some point that trend had to be broken. I honestly couldn't see why a horse couldn't win the Derby off a five-, six-, seven-week layoff when they do it all the time in other races."

For some 20 years, Gulfstream Park had run the Florida Derby seven or eight weeks before the Kentucky Derby, depending on when the calendar fell. But because of scheduling issues relating to how its own series of stakes races for 3-year-olds were being staggered, Gulfstream moved the Florida Derby deeper into its meet in 2005, and now the race comes five weeks before the Kentucky Derby. In previous years, there was time after the Florida Derby for at least one more prep race before moving to Churchill, but now that might be pushing it.

For Scat Daddy, the new timing of the Florida Derby is probably best, said Pletcher.

"One of the main reasons I chose the Florida Derby for him is because I wanted the five weeks," said Pletcher, who also has several other Kentucky Derby hopefuls being coaxed along toward May 5 at Churchill. "He only had three weeks between the Champagne and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and I really thought it compromised his chances in the Breeders' Cup," in which the colt finished a distant fourth.

Pletcher will be in Dubai and therefore will not be present Saturday when Scat Daddy, one of 10 horses expected to enter Wednesday, starts in the $1 million Florida Derby. But Pletcher was watching intently at Palm Beach last Saturday, when Scat Daddy had his final serious preparation for the Florida Derby. Ridden by Angel Cordero Jr., the colt breezed five furlongs in 1:01 without company.

"He is doing very, very good," said Cordero. "He can be very aggressive in the morning, so Todd doesn't send him out in company. He has a long leg, a long stride. If he runs the same way he did last time, he should win again Saturday."

Scat Daddy enters off a victory in the March 3 Fountain of Youth Stakes. Wide on both turns of the 1o1/8-mile race, he rallied from fourth in deep stretch to prevail in a blanket finish over heavily favored Nobiz Like Shobiz and two rivals who will return Saturday in the Florida Derby, Stormello and Adore the Gold.

"He didn't have the best of it in the Fountain of Youth, coming from out of it on a track that's not the kindest track to close on," said Pletcher. "All in all, it was a great effort, and obviously he showed that day he should be able to get the mile and an eighth," the same distance as the Florida Derby.

Scat Daddy, by Johannesburg, was purchased by retired Wall Street tycoon James Scatuorchio as a yearling for $250,000. Scatuorchio, one of Pletcher's first clients, then gave a quarter-interest each to Pletcher and his father, J.J. Pletcher, "pretty much as a bonus for all the success we'd had together," said Pletcher, alluding to horses such as More Than Ready and English Channel. After Scat Daddy opened his career with two wins and a runner-up finish in the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes, and before the colt won the Oct. 14 Champagne at Belmont Park, the Pletchers sold their combined half-interest to Michael Tabor, another longtime Pletcher client.

"It was a very generous offer by Mr. Scatuorchio in the first place, and obviously it's worked out well for everyone," said Pletcher.

With standouts such as Circular Quay, Any Given Saturday, and the filly Rags to Riches in the same barn, Scat Daddy has been somewhat of a forgotten name along the Derby trail this winter. But Pletcher believes the colt may eventually prove as formidable as any of the many weapons in his arsenal.

"It's hard to say anybody is a standout at this point," he said. "All I know is this colt has shown from Day 1 that he's among the best of his generation. Hopefully he can take another big step Saturday at Gulfstream."