10/12/2008 12:00AM

Long-absent Cowboy Cal finally back


LEXINGTON, Ky. - While many of his 3-year-old compatriots have raised their game to another level in the last five months, time has stood still for Cowboy Cal.

The last time Cowboy Cal raced was in the 134th Kentucky Derby, when he faded to ninth after pressing the pace to the top of the stretch. As an early leader in his division, particularly among turf horses, Cowboy Cal will try to resume his pursuit of excellence Sunday when he returns to action as the likely favorite in a field of 12 3-year-olds entered in the Grade 3 Bryan Station Stakes at Keeneland.

Cowboy Cal, a Stonerside Stable homebred, was assigned post 4 with John Velazquez aboard in the $150,000 Bryan Station, a one-mile turf race that anchors the card as the eighth of nine races.

Cowboy Cal was a turf standout from the first time trainer Todd Pletcher ran him on the surface. Making his second career start on Sept. 26, 2007, at Belmont Park, Cowboy Cal ran off to a 4 1/4-length maiden triumph with Velazquez aboard. He then posted back-to-back stakes victories in the Laurel Futurity and Tropical Park Derby before finishing second in the Hallandale Beach Stakes in February.

Enticed by the allure of the Kentucky Derby, Stonerside and Pletcher then ran the colt in the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes on the Keeneland Polytrack. Cowboy Cal ran huge, only to be run down in the final yards by his Pletcher stablemate, Monba, when finishing second by a neck.

He then bled in his lone subsequent start, the May 3 Derby, and was given time off at Stonerside in Kentucky, according to Pletcher.

The Bryan Station is no easy spot for a comeback. St. Joe, Stormy Ballad, and Montana Mike have the kind of speed that might compromise Cowboy Cal if he's too fresh, while Nistle's Crunch, Deal Making, Big Stick, and Mr Maccool all have dangerous kick under any circumstance.

The Bryan Station, named for a Lexington settlement established around 1776, was for fillies and mares from 1993-2001 before being discontinued, then revived in 2005 as a race for 3-year-olds. Kip Deville, now an earner of $2.7 million, won it two years ago.

* Unlike some other tracks that are normally dark on Mondays but stage special programs on Columbus Day, Keeneland will remain shuttered Monday.