04/13/2006 12:00AM

No reason to doubt Bluegrass Cat

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - When Bluegrass Cat kicked off his year with a 1 1/4-length victory over Deputy Glitters in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Feb. 18, his workmanlike effort seemed forgivable given that he had been returning from a layoff. Then came a loss to Deputy Glitters in the March 18 Tampa Bay Derby, a race he was favored to win at 2-5 odds, and suddenly Bluegrass Cat was less of a leading Kentucky Derby prospect.

I hope that come Saturday, with the running of the Bluegrass Stakes, he still has his share of doubters. If so, he could represent a playable alternative to First Samurai, the 8-5 morning-line favorite.

In my eyes, Bluegrass Cat lost nothing in finishing second in the Tampa Bay Derby. He reportedly lost a shoe in the race and struggled to get a hold of the Tampa Bay surface, yet still managed to finish a clear second, running a career-best 99 Beyer Speed Figure.

Had Bluegrass Cat won and earned that same Beyer, bettors would be all over him. But since Bluegrass Cat lost to Deputy Glitters, who was subsequently sixth in a sloppy Wood Memorial, my guess is that the public won't fancy him quite as much as they should.

He will get his share of support - his trainer, Todd Pletcher, and jockey, John Velazquez, get bet across the country as heavily as jockey Pat Day once did when he rode in Kentucky - but I don't think many will be backing Bluegrass Cat on the basis of what he did in Tampa.

Perhaps they should. Keeneland bettors tend to overlook horses that last raced at Tampa Bay Downs, even though they regularly run well at Keeneland. In one memorable example, Menifee won the Bluegrass in 1999, paying $17.40 to win, after finishing second in the Tampa Bay Derby.

Those looking for more recent results may also wish to consider statistics from the first week of racing at the current meet. Through Thursday, horses that last raced at Tampa Bay had compiled a Keeneland record of 5 wins, 2 seconds, and 3 thirds from 19 starts. They also won at prices - all but one of the five winners paid $15 or more, including Bushfire, who paid $32.20 when she won the Ashland.

Some won on turf, others on dirt. Some, like Bushfire, won richer races, and others scored in cheaper events.

As for why they have paid so well, part of the reason is that bettors have viewed the track and quality of racing at Tampa Bay to be inferior to racing at Gulfstream Park, where a larger percentage of Keeneland starters spent their winter competing.

The races at Tampa Bay also don't get the same exposure in terms of simulcasting and media coverage, resulting in races from there going largely unnoticed.

With that in mind, Bluegrass Cat as well as longshots Little Cliff and Storm Treasure, who were fourth and sixth in the Tampa Bay Derby, may start as overlays in the Bluegrass.

As for First Samurai, it seems he will be a bit too short of a price to support if he maintains or drops from his 8-5 morning line odds - unless, of course, the Keeneland track is playing Saturday the way it did at Keeneland on Wednesday. That day, all six main-track races were won wire to wire, essentially turning every race into a two-furlong sprint, regardless of its scheduled distance.

Provided the track isn't overly speed favoring, I'd rather try to beat First Samurai. Aside from a roughly contested stretch run in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, which he won by disqualification, First Samurai had a highly favorable trip, setting an easy pace with his ears pricked, yet he didn't quicken when called upon. He stayed even-paced throughout, and while he appeared to show heart to finish a length behind stretch-weaving Corinthian, who crossed the wire first before being disqualified and placed third for interference, that was more the result of Corinthian laying up on the lead than First Samurai finishing particularly strong.

I think First Samurai will run well in the Bluegrass - he hasn't been off the board in seven starts - but on a fair racetrack, Bluegrass Cat can beat him.