08/22/2005 11:00PM

Flower Alley grows into his talent

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - In the last three summers, trainer Todd Pletcher has won 86 races at Saratoga. The most coveted prize on this track's calendar, however, has eluded him.

Saturday, Pletcher will take a third straight crack at the $1 million Travers Stakes when he sends out Flower Alley against Bellamy Road, Roman Ruler, and four other quality 3-year-olds in the 136th Midsummer Derby.

Flower Alley comes off an authoritative victory in the Jim Dandy Stakes, the traditional prep for the Travers. Pletcher has become dominant in the Jim Dandy, having won four of the last six runnings of that race. But, none of his last three Jim Dandy winners was able to find Travers glory.

In 2000, Graeme Hall got injured winning the Jim Dandy and didn't make the Travers. In 2003, Strong Hope upset Empire Maker in the Jim Dandy, but in the Travers he got caught in a speed duel with Peace Rules and finished third behind Ten Most Wanted. Last year, Purge galloped in the Jim Dandy, but could not duplicate that effort three weeks later and finished fourth behind Birdstone.

Thanks to a change in scheduling, Flower Alley will have four weeks between the Jim Dandy and Travers. That is but one reason why Pletcher believes he is taking his best shot at winning the Travers.

"He's a horse that's improving at the right time, he's had a race over the track, he has the benefit of having the extra week," Pletcher said. "I think he gets a mile and a quarter."

Flower Alley, a son of Distorted Humor owned by Eugene Melnyk, was not one of the flashy 2-year-olds that Pletcher has dazzled racing fans with the last few years. He didn't get to the races until last December, when he finished third in a maiden event at Calder. Pletcher said Flower Alley benefited greatly from having the race and began to train "much, much better."

Two months later, Flower Alley won a one-mile maiden race at Gulfstream and was put on the fast track to see if he could qualify for the Kentucky Derby.

In March, Flower Alley won the Grade 2 Lane's End at Turfway Park, earning him a shot at Afleet Alex in the Arkansas Derby. With Afleet Alex having just run poorly in the Rebel, it was unclear how tough a spot that would be. But Afleet Alex bounced back big time with an eight-length score while Flower Alley finished second.

To Pletcher, the performance was good enough to justify running Flower Alley in the Kentucky Derby. Pletcher took a calculated risk of adding blinkers to Flower Alley's equipment in the Derby, and Flower Alley wound up chasing a hot pace from the inside. Flower Alley got stopped behind a tiring Spanish Chestnut and finished ninth, 7 1/2 lengths behind Giacomo.

Pletcher believes the performance was better than it looks on paper. Better still was the decision by Pletcher and Melnyk to skip the remainder of the Triple Crown series. After a two-month freshening, Flower Alley finished a good second behind Roman Ruler in the Dwyer at Belmont before recording a 5 1/4-length, front-running victory in the Jim Dandy.

"I think without a doubt we're here today with a good chance in the Travers because we did that," Pletcher said. "I think had we come back in the Preakness, come back in the Belmont, it probably wouldn't have been the right thing to do for him."

In the Dwyer, jockey John Velazquez let Roman Ruler get the jump on him, but Flower Alley fought on well to be second.

In the Jim Dandy, Flower Alley won a pace battle with Mr. Congeniality and ran away from Reverberate in the stretch. Andromeda's Hero made a mild run, and the other horses in the race were eased. Flower Alley didn't change leads until very late in the Jim Dandy while running nine furlongs in 1:49.50 over a dull surface. He earned a career-best Beyer Figure of 112.

"To me, the most important part about the race was how fast he ran," Pletcher said. "His Beyer Speed Figures jumped up; he moved forward on all pace figures. I think it was a good race. You can't hold it against him because those were the only ones that showed up."

In the Travers, Flower Alley will be reacquainted with Bellamy Road, who finished ahead of him in the Kentucky Derby, and Roman Ruler, who beat him in the Dwyer. Pletcher has been excited about the way Flower Alley is doing physically and is just looking for a step forward mentally.

"Mentally he's still getting there," Pletcher said. "I still don't think he's run his very best race yet."

Saturday wouldn't be a bad time to do that.