03/29/2005 1:00AM

Favorites' fortunes reversed

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Bill Denver/Equi-Photo
Todd Pletcher, who trains Bandini (above), said he would wait until Wednesday to decide whether to enter.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The outlook for the $1 million Florida Derby underwent dramatic change Tuesday when trainer Todd Pletcher said solidified his status as the race favorite with a half-mile breeze.

Bandini figured to challenge High Fly for favoritism in the Grade 1 Florida Derby, which will be run for the 54th time Saturday at Gulfstream Park. But Bandini has been suffering in recent days from a problem that Pletcher would not specify.

"He's not sick, but he's not 100 percent, either," said Pletcher, who had hoped to work the colt Monday or Tuesday. "I will make a final decision [Wednesday morning] on whether to work him or not. If he doesn't work, we won't enter."

Pletcher, speaking outside his barn Tuesday morning at the Palm Meadows training center, said he is confident the colt could still run in the April 9 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct or the April 16 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.

"He's going to be fine, but unfortunately the timing couldn't be much worse," he said.

Bandini, a Fusaichi Pegasus colt owned by Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith, has developed into one of the top prospects for the Kentucky Derby at Gulfstream this winter with two wins and a sharp runner-up finish behind High Fly in the March 5 Fountain of Youth Stakes.

Pletcher said he will run Vicarage in the Florida Derby if Bandini is not entered. Vicarage, owned by Dogwood Stable, most recently ran second at 21-1 behind High Limit in the March 12 Louisiana Derby.

Meanwhile, High Fly, working in company with stablemate Chief Commander, had his final prerace workout Tuesday at Gulfstream. With exercise rider Carlos Correa aboard, High Fly edged clear from his workmate to finish in 48.40 seconds over a fast track.

The Tuesday developments marked a major turnabout from last weekend, when Bandini appeared set to inherit the favorite's role after trainer Nick Zito postponed a Saturday workout for High Fly because the colt had come down with a slight temperature the previous afternoon.

Also Tuesday, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin remained hopeful that Closing Argument would make the Florida Derby, even though a foot bruise prevented the colt from training that morning at Palm Meadows.

"He was a lot better today, but we're still very iffy for the race," said McLaughlin. "This just came up the last few days. It's hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute. I'm not worried at all about him missing his last work before the race. He's worked every week up to now since he won the Holy Bull," on Feb. 5.

McLaughlin said he would watch Closing Argument train Wednesday morning to determine whether to enter the colt in the Florida Derby.

"If we don't run, there are four other races we can run in later on," he said, referring to subsequent Kentucky Derby preps.

Besides Closing Argument, who would be ridden by Cornelio Velasquez, there are seven 3-year-olds likely to run in the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby. With known jockey assignments, they are High Fly, Jerry Bailey; Noble Causeway, Edgar Prado; B. B. Best, Jorge Chavez; Vicarage, John Velazquez; Mighty Mecke; Wallstreet Scandal; and Papi Chullo, Robby Albarado.

Entries for the Florida Derby were to be drawn Wednesday. The race will be telecast live on ABC Sports on a one-hour broadcast that starts at 5 p.m. Eastern. Saturday's only other notable prep for 3-year-olds is the $500,000 WinStar Derby at Sunland Park.

As for High Fly, the colt was forced to wait until the conclusion of regular training hours before being allowed on the racetrack Tuesday. He had been shipped from Palm Meadows to Gulfstream on Sunday along with stablemate Noble Causeway, and both have been placed in temporary isolation due to the recent strangles outbreak at Palm Meadows.

In his breeze, High Fly covered his first quarter-mile in 25.20 seconds before edging clear of his workmate by running his final quarter in 23.20.

"I was very pleased," said Zito. "Very, very pleased. I liked the way he relaxed, and he galloped out very strong. We were training English-style this morning. We had the whole yard to ourselves. Naturally it's a bit of an inconvenience having to work so late, but fortunately we've been blessed by having good weather.

"I'm breathing a sigh of relief after the work today, but we've still got a couple of more days to go. Hopefully he'll have a good week."

The news that Bandini and Closing Argument may not run in the Florida Derby has spurred interest from trainers who otherwise might have dodged the race.

"We'll weigh our options today," said Rick Violette, who trains Wallstreet Scandal, "but in light of the recent developments, chances are I'll probably leave him here [at Palm Meadows], enter, and see what happens."

"In light of the defections, it's certainly changed the complexion of the race," said Steve Klesaris, trainer of Mighty Mecke. "We'll see what transpires over the next 24 hours before deciding whether to enter."

Wallstreet Scandal ran fourth, beaten 8 1/2 lengths, in the Louisiana Derby. Mighty Mecke has won both of his career starts, the latest coming in the March 21 Ocala Breeders' Sales Championship, a restricted race.

Papi Chullo, who finished fourth by 4 1/2 lengths in the Fountain of Youth, comes into the Florida Derby winless in four career starts. He also worked Tuesday at Gulfstream, going a half-mile in 49.30 seconds under jockey Tommy Turner. Salvador Gonzalez trains Papi Chullo.

"I guess the maiden has them all running," Papi Chullo's owner, Greg Norman, said jokingly after learning about the uncertain status of Bandini and Closing Argument. "We're right where we want to be with our horse right now. He finished up well this morning and never extended himself. He came back from the work just like it was a gallop."

- additional reporting by Mike Welsch