08/05/2010 4:24PM

Pletcher expects Quality Road to deliver big performance in Whitney

Tom Keyser
Quality Road, working Sunday at Saratoga, will try on Saturday to become the eighth horse to win the Met Mile and the Whitney in the same year.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. –Here’s a scary thought: As good as Quality Road was winning the Metropolitan Handicap – and he was brilliant – trainer Todd Pletcher believes the 4-year-old colt could be even better in Saturday’s Grade 1, $750,000 Whitney Handicap at Saratoga.

If Pletcher’s assessment proves correct then his five opponents are in for a long day and those who attend the 11-race card on what is forecast to be a glorious summer afternoon in the Adirondack region – highs in the mid-70s and no rain – will be in for quite a show.

Coming off a 114-day layoff, Quality Road won the Met Mile at Belmont Park on May 31 by 1 1/2 lengths over Musket Man, running the distance in 1:33.11, which equaled the second-fastest time in the 111-year history of the race.

“It was a huge performance, I thought,” said Pletcher, who trains Quality Road for owner/breeder Ed Evans. “We thought we had him fit enough to do that. The way he’s trained leading up to this indicates to me that he’s even fitter and better than he was going into the Met. His works coming into this have just been unbelievable to watch. The way he’s trained is as good as a horse can train.”

If Quality Road adds the Whitney to his victory in the Met Mile, he will become the eighth horse to win both races in the same year. The list consists of Equipoise (1932), Devil Diver (1944), Tom Fool (1953), Kelso (1961), Carry Back (1962), Criminal Type (1990), and In Excess (1991).

Quality Road will face a solid field in the Whitney, which will award an automatic berth into the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 6 as part of the Breeders’ Cup’s Win and You’re In program. His opponents Saturday include Blame, winner of six of his last seven races, including the Grade 1 Stephen Foster; Musket Man, the Met runner-up; Haynesfield, the Suburban winner; and Mine That Bird, the 2009 Kentucky Derby winner. The Brazilian-bred and overmatched Jardim rounds out the field.

The Whitney goes race 10 on a card that also includes the Grade 1 Test for 3-year-old fillies. The Whitney is the third leg of a pick-four wager that has a guaranteed pool of $500,000. The Test and Whitney will be shown live during a one-hour-broadcast on regions sports networks MSG-Plus and Mid-Atlantic Sports Network beginning at 5 p.m. Eastern.

The Whitney is run at 1 1/8 miles, a distance at which Quality Road set a track record at Gulfstream Park winning the Grade 1 Florida Derby (1:47.72) as a 3-year-old before breaking that mark in February winning the Grade 1 Donn Handicap by 12 3/4 lengths in 1:47.49.

It wouldn’t be shocking if Quality Road threatened Saratoga’s track record, set by the Pletcher-trained Lawyer Ron, who in 2007 won the Whitney in 1:46.64. The Pletcher-trained Left Bank won the 2002 Whitney in 1:47.04, which equals the second-fastest time of this race.

Quality Road, who is the 126-pound highweight and is conceding five to 13 pounds to the field, is a speed horse who can carry that speed a distance of ground. His natural gait probably puts him on the front end, unless the connections of Haynesfield are intent on making the lead.

“He’s going to have to run really fast to pass me going to that first turn because [Quality Road] is pretty quick out of there,” said John Velazquez, a three-time Whitney winner who will ride Quality Road from post 3.

Steve Asmussen, the trainer of Haynesfield, a New York-bred son of Speightstown who has reeled off four straight wins, including the Grade 2 Suburban, said it wouldn’t make sense to mess with Haynesfield’s running style.

“I don’t think you can think a horse deserves a chance and then change who they are,” he said. “If you do something different with him how are you going to know if he belongs or doesn’t belong? Let him run.”

Al Stall, the trainer of the late-running Blame, hopes that Haynesfield can put enough pressure on Quality Road to give his horse a chance in the stretch. Blame has won four consecutive graded stakes, including the Grade 1 Stephen Foster, in which he overcame an outside post and slow fractions to win.

“He overcame the post, he overcame the slow pace, and still ran a really good race,” Stall said. “You’d think coming out of that race he’d have to be better going in. He always trains well so I can’t tell you he’s better. You have to think he’s sitting on a really good race.”

Musket Man came within 1 1/2 lengths of Quality Road at a mile, and will now stretch out around two turns for the first time since he finished third in the Preakness. Rajiv Maragh rides Musket Man for the first time.

Mine That Bird has lost six straight races since upsetting the 2009 Kentucky Derby at 50-1. D. Wayne Lukas, who took over the training of the gelding in May, has trained Mine That Bird with the idea of not allowing him to be so far off the pace early on in a race

“We don’t have any grandiose ideas that we can run down Blame or Quality Road or Musket Man from left field,” Lukas said. “We’re going to have to stay a little bit closer but we’ve been training a little bit different. He’s showing a little more turn of foot so we won’t be as far back, hopefully.”