04/11/2008 11:00PM

Monba tops Pletcher Blue Grass exacta

Pat Lang/Lang Photography
Monba, with Edgar Prado up, runs down his stablemate Cowboy Cal to win Saturday's Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland by a neck.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Assuming Polytrack results mean something toward the Kentucky Derby, Todd Pletcher is back in business. Normally a huge factor on the Triple Crown trail, Pletcher had been a non-factor this spring as things took shape for the May 3 Derby.

Until Saturday. Pletcher sent out the one-two finishers in the 84th running of the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes over Polytrack at Keeneland when Monba, ridden by Edgar Prado, edged past stablemate Cowboy Cal in the final yards to prevail by a neck, while heavily favored Pyro never threatened when finishing 10th of 12 3-year-olds.

While Monba, owned by the Starlight Stable, at least has won an allowance race from two starts on dirt, Cowboy Cal had raced exclusively on turf after a dull dirt performance in his career debut last August. Pletcher acknowledged the difference in surfaces, saying: "At least they both now have the earnings, so at least we're in the position to think about" running in the Derby.

Monba, a Kentucky-bred colt by Maria's Mon, returned $19.60 after finishing 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.71 on Polytrack.

Cowboy Cal, with John Velazquez aboard, took the early lead, setting fractions of 24.96 seconds, 49.01, and 1:13.17. Monba, always ready to strike when fourth, then second, inched closer from the outside on the far turn and by the time the field straightened out, he was nearly abreast of his stablemate. Down the stretch, Monba gradually edged ahead to earn $465,000 from the $750,000 total purse.

Kentucky Bear, a 27-1 shot, finished another 1 1/4 lengths back in third, followed by Stevil, Visionaire, Miner's Claim, Halo Najib, Medjool, Cool Coal Man, Pyro, Big Truck, and Stone Bird.

Pyro, making his first start on Polytrack, raced near the back of the pack and never fired, finishing 11 1/2 lengths behind Monba. Trainer Steve Asmussen, watching from Arkansas, said he was going to attribute the poor performance to the new surface. He said he will send Pyro to the Derby with confidence. Pyro was coming off back-to-back wins in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby.

Monba was coming off a 12th-place finish in the Feb. 24 Fountain of Youth, his only start of the year. In three starts at 2, the gray colt won a maiden race at Keeneland and an allowance at Churchill before finishing fourth in the Dec. 22 CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park.

The Blue Grass victory was the third for Prado, who won in 2002 with Harlan's Holiday and 2003 with Peace Rules. Starlight also owned Harlan's Holiday.

Ontrack attendance on a cool, cloudy day was an even 26,000.

Pletcher, the Eclipse Award-winning trainer the last four years, is still seeking his first Derby victory. He ran five starters in the race last year.

Monba ended the first two-day wager in Keeneland history. The $2 Maker's Mark-Blue Grass daily double combining Kip Deville and Monba paid $102.20.