02/14/2008 1:00AM

Cowboy Cal following turf path to Derby

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Gulfstream Park's Hallandale Beach Stakes has rarely been known as a Kentucky Derby prep. For starters, the race is ungraded, not to mention the fact it's carded at 1 1/16 miles on the turf.

But this year's renewal might just be a stepping-stone to a possible Run for the Roses for the talented Cowboy Cal, whose current form mirrors that of the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner, Barbaro.

Like Barbaro, Cowboy Cal registered easy turf victories in the Laurel Futurity and the Grade 3 Tropical Park Derby to close out his 2-year-old campaign and open his 3-year-old season. And as with Barbaro, trainer Todd Pletcher is hoping Cowboy Cal will continue to progress well enough to earn himself a starting slot in the Kentucky Derby.

"I got to looking at his schedule moving forward, and our choices were the Fountain of Youth, this spot, or shipping out of town," said Pletcher. "And I thought the spacing of the races was good to run him here Saturday and then come back in the Blue Grass. That itinerary wouldn't be tremendously different than Barbaro's, other than his final prep for the Derby would be the Blue Grass instead of on conventional dirt."

The Blue Grass will be run over Keeneland's Polytrack surface.

Cowboy Cal is one of three horses Pletcher entered in the Hallandale Beach, along with Why Tonto, a sharp second in the Tropical Park Derby, and Chitoz. In a perfect world, though, only Cowboy Cal will start.

"I've entered the other two in a couple of two-other-than allowance races that didn't fill, and I'll enter them again on Saturday morning for another one carried over for next Wednesday," said Pletcher. "I'd like to keep them all apart, but if that race doesn't fill either, then they all could run in the Hallandale Beach."

Cowboy Cal's principle competition on Saturday, assuming Why Tonto doesn't start, figures to come from Cannonball, who finished third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf just five days after winning Belmont's King Cugat Stakes. Cannonball had an eventful trip when he finished 2 1/2 lengths behind Cowboy Cal in the Tropical Derby, beginning when he hit the side of the gate at the break.

Cannonball shows only one published work in the nearly seven weeks since the Tropical Derby, a half-mile drill in 51.60 seconds around the dogs over the Gulfstream turf course on Feb. 3.

Completing the lineup are Run Sully Run, Closing Number, Dulansky, Gibber's Gold, Caberneigh, Victory Cafe, Horse Doctor, and Moral Compass.