02/22/2012 4:11PM

Kentucky Derby: Pletcher's turn to show off his talent

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Barbara D. Livingston
El Padrino is the likely favorite for Saturday's Grade 2 Risen Star at Fair Grounds.

NEW ORLEANS – Like gunslingers inexorably moving toward one another for an old-fashioned shootout, Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher have been dominating the 3-year-old preps this year. As a result, each trainer has four runners on this week’s top 20 list of Derby Watch, Baffert doubling his total from a week ago because of subsequent victories by Castaway and Secret Circle in divisions of the Southwest Stakes.

This weekend, it is Pletcher who will take aim at a pair of lucrative races. On Saturday, he will send out El Padrino here at Fair Grounds in the Grade 2, $300,000 Risen Star Stakes, a race in which El Padrino should be favored. And then on Sunday, in what is shaping up as the best Kentucky Derby prep this season, Pletcher will run both Algorithms and Discreet Dancer against highly regarded Union Rags in the Grade 2, $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream.

[DERBY WATCH: Top 20 contenders | Who's hot, who's not]

Pletcher on Wednesday said he is hoping to emulate Baffert’s success from earlier in the week.

“I think it’s possible,” Pletcher said by phone from Florida, where he is based for the winter. “But I have a lot of respect for Union Rags. And while I don’t think the Risen Star is an easy race, it made more sense to run El Padrino there than in the Fountain of Youth. But you don’t necessarily have to win the prep to gain ground.”

El Padrino shipped here from Florida on Wednesday and arrives as the one to beat owing to his powerful victory last time out over Take Charge Indy in a first-level allowance race on the same card on which Algorithms won the Holy Bull. Pletcher said the reasons El Padrino became the horse who went out of town include his demeanor and his need to boost his bank account.

“He needs earnings, and with Algorithms, Union Rags, and Discreet Dancer in the Fountain of Youth, you could run a huge race and be second, third, or fourth, and not make much graded cash. Plus, he’s a pretty laid-back horse. Very laid back, actually.

“This could be a good experience, and if he does well, you could look at him going back to Fair Grounds as an option next time,” Pletcher said, referring to the Grade 2, $1 million Louisiana Derby on April 1.

El Padrino has raced four times. After finishing second in his debut at Saratoga, he was a romping winner against maidens at Belmont Park, then was an unlucky third in the Remsen in his first try around two turns. In his lone start since then, El Padrino won that allowance race at Gulfstream. Both his victories have come on off tracks, which Pletcher called “a coincidence.”

“They were sloppy tracks, but he’s always trained extremely well on fast tracks, and his other fast-track races were good,” Pletcher said.

El Padrino was favored in the Remsen and closed furiously after racing in traffic.

“He was bottled up and never got in the clear until it was too late,” Pletcher said. “It was his first race around two turns, he was a little inexperienced, and I think it put him to sleep, being inside. It took him a while to get clear, but he finished fast and galloped out well. I really think he was the best horse that day.”

The inexperience betrayed that day, along with the laid-back demeanor, has caused Pletcher to admittedly ponder using blinkers on El Padrino, but he said he thought it was an unnecessary option at this point, being as the colt seems to be progressing.

“I’ve thought about it,” Pletcher said, “but I’d like to see him figure it out on his own. He’s getting more and more professional. The fact that he’s laid back is a good thing.”

Algorithms and Discreet Dancer figure to be two of the top three choices in the Fountain of Youth. Algorithms has the most buzz right now, being as he walloped Eclipse Award winner Hansen in the Holy Bull. He is unbeaten in all three of his starts. But the Holy Bull came over an off track, and the Fountain of Youth will be the first race for Algorithms around two turns. Neither of which concerns Pletcher – Algorithms is by Bernardini, a Preakness Stakes winner, and he has won two races on fast tracks – but those are the hurdles for Algorithms this time against this company.

“He doesn’t act in his races like two turns will be a problem,” Pletcher said. “Even more, perhaps, is the way he trains, the way he gallops out after his works.”

Discreet Dancer is taking a bigger jump. He has raced just twice, and never around two turns. Plus, this is his stakes debut. His raw talent, though, is undeniable. Discreet Dancer has won his two races by a combined margin of more than 15 lengths. And even though Discreet Dancer had a slight setback with a brief illness several weeks ago, causing him to miss a work, Pletcher said he has come on sharply since.

“Even though he missed one work, I felt I was about a work ahead with him on the schedule at that time anyway, so there was a little cushion,” Pletcher said. “He’s come back with two very good five-furlong breezes.”

Pletcher’s other highly ranked Derby prospect, the unbeaten Gemologist, has been training at Palm Meadows in preparation for his first start of the year next month in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn.

That might be the first place Baffert and Pletcher finally meet this spring. But judging by the way things are progressing, it won’t be the last.

Derby prospects, Baffert vs. Pletcher

Baffert

Horse Comment
Bodemeister Impressive maiden winner awaits first stakes engagement
Castaway Won slower division of Southwest but still impressed
Drill Got back on track in San Vicente but will stay short
Fed Biz 97 Beyer in allowance puts him among the big boys
Liaison Hol Futurity winner lost luster in Lewis debacle
Secret Circle Second straight top effort at two turns in Southwest

Pletcher

Horse Comment
Algorithms Top 3yo Beyer in slop; acid test vs. Union Rags in Fountain of Youth
Discreet Dancer Steps up ladder in Fountain of Youth after big allowance score
El Padrino Strong choice in Risen Star off triple-digit Beyer in GP allowance
Gemologist Undefeated KJC winner gets 3yo campaign started in March 17 Rebel
Thunder Moccasin Galloped in 7f Hutcheson but unlikely to go down Derby trail