02/22/2008 1:00AM

Pletcher hoping to 'sneak up on them'

Benoit & Associates
Jockey Garrett Gomez talks with trainer Todd Pletcher.

DELRAY BEACH, Fla. - The deck appeared stacked for trainer Todd Pletcher last year. In the weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby, he won the Fountain of Youth Stakes, Florida Derby, Illinois Derby, and Louisiana Derby. He sent out five horses in the Kentucky Derby - Any Given Saturday, Circular Quay, Cowtown Cat, Sam P., and Scat Daddy - then watched the deck turn into a crumbling house of cards, leaving Pletcher 0 for 19 in the Derby.

With only 2 1/2 months to go before this year's Derby on May 3, Pletcher does not appear to be holding as strong a hand as last year. Monba, who is scheduled to run Sunday in the Grade 2, $350,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park, is the only Pletcher trainee viewed as a top-rank Derby candidate at this point. His better 2-year-olds of last year were, for the most part, sprinters, like Ready's Image, or turf horses, like The Leopard. Two of Pletcher's clients have reached out in recent weeks and privately purchased Check It Twice and Face the Cat, trying to reload, but already Check It Twice has been sidelined with an injury.

Not that anyone needs to take up a collection for Pletcher, but the cupboard is missing some stemware.

Yet, as Pletcher cautioned during his pre-Derby stakes run last year, and he reiterated this week, those bouquets in March and April do not guarantee roses in May.

"We've got some promising horses coming around, but at this stage we're not four or five deep, with horses showing up in every Derby prep," Pletcher said at Palm Beach Downs, the private training facility where he has most of his South Florida-based horses. "Last year, at this stage, we were holding a stronger hand than it appears we are now. We did well in a lot of the preps, but on Derby Day, none of them performed as well as we had hoped."

Monba won his first two starts, then was fourth in the CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park in his last start. Although he tends to be lazy in the morning, Pletcher said Monba is "training more forwardly than he has in the past."

"He's more focused than he was as a 2-year-old, but he'll continue to run in blinkers," said Pletcher, who has put blinkers on Monba for all his races to date.

Pletcher's next-best prospect might be Face the Cat, a majority interest in whom was acquired by Satish Sanan's Padua Stables following a four-length allowance victory at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 30 for trainer Helen Pitts. Pletcher, who has had the colt for less than three weeks, said he is leaning toward running Face the Cat on March 15, in either the Grade 2, $300,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, or the Grade 3, $300,000 Tampa Bay Derby.

Check It Twice, however, is getting four to six weeks off after some swelling developed in his left front leg. He is recuperating at a farm in Ocala, Fla., run by Pletcher's father, J.J.

Some of Pletcher's other better known 3-year-olds are a ways away from starting, and are not considered Derby material. Ready's Image, who won the Sanford Stakes at Saratoga last year, has only been galloping for two weeks at Palm Beach Downs. He had arthroscopic surgery after finishing eighth in last fall's Champagne Stakes.

The Roundhouse exited last year's Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland with sore shins and only recently returned to training.

Talk of a Cat, who disappointed in California earlier this year, will not return to action until April at Keeneland, Pletcher said.

Pletcher has 102 horses at Palm Beach Downs, which is located about 45 minutes northwest of Gulfstream Park and five miles south of the Palm Meadows training center. Pletcher had a handful of horses at Palm Beach two years ago, put scores more here last year, and put the bulk of his horses here this year; he has 25 more at Gulfstream, but none at Palm Meadows.

"The surface is very good," Pletcher said. "It's a very quiet setting. It's a mile track, so it's got the same feel as being at a racetrack, but it's got the quietness of a private training center. A lot of times when we go to the track, we're the only set. Last year, we had a lot of success running out of here, and the horses ran well not only at Gulfstream, but in the weeks after we left here."

One thing he would like to do differently this year, though, is have his Derby horses peak a little later in the game.

"Having been there, winning early doesn't always pay off in May," Pletcher said. "Maybe we'll sneak up on them this year."

In other Derby developments:

* Crown of Thorns, winner of the Robert Lewis Stakes earlier this month, has been taken out of training and will miss the Derby because of a "little bit of a stress fracture" in his left front leg, trainer Richard Mandella said Wednesday. Crown of Thorns lost his debut, but had won twice since. His next scheduled start was to be the Grade 3, $200,000 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita on March 1.

* Even though Pyro was an impressive winner of the Risen Star Stakes, his list of rivals for the Grade 2, $600,000 Louisiana Derby on March 8 continues to grow. In addition to Hopeful Stakes winner Majestic Warrior, who will make his 3-year-old debut in the Louisiana Derby, others who this week committed to the race are Blackberry Road, Tale of Ekati, and Yankee Bravo.

* As of Wednesday, Pyro's trainer, Steve Asmussen, said he would also run recent allowance winner J Be K in the Louisiana Derby. Z Fortune, the Risen Star runner-up, could also go in the Louisiana Derby, but is more likely to wait one week for the Rebel.

* Visionaire, third in the Risen Star, may go in the Louisiana Derby, but also is being considered for the Rebel or the Grade 3, $250,000 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct on March 8, trainer Michael Matz said.

* Fierce Wind, the Sam F. Davis winner, may return to Tampa Bay Downs for the Tampa Bay Derby, or await the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby on March 29 at Gulfstream, trainer Nick Zito said. Smooth Air, third in the Sam Davis, also will go in one of those two races, trainer Bennie Stutts said.

* Trainer Bill Mott has yet to decide where Z Humor will run next following his dull fifth-place finish, after washing out in the paddock, in the Sam Davis. "He obviously didn't handle the situation as well as he should," Mott said.

* The mount on Cool Coal Man in Sunday's Fountain of Youth will go to Kent Desormeaux, according to Zito, after Eibar Coa chose to ride Elysium Fields for trainer Barclay Tagg.

Who's hot, who's not

WHO'S HOT: Fierce Wind, who won the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, gives trainer Nick Zito another Derby Watch top 25 contender, to go along with War Pass, Anak Nakal, and Cool Coal Man. J Be K, newly acquired by trainer Steve Asmussen, returned from a five-month layoff to remain unbeaten sprinting. Both are 40-1 on the Kentucky Derby future line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper. Pyro inched closer to Watchmaker's favorite, War Pass. He is now 9-2 after being 5-1 a week ago. Denis of Cork tumbled from 40-1 to 25-1, following his victory in the Southwest Stakes on Monday.

WHO'S NOT: Crown of Thorns and Etched were dropped from the list. Crown of Thorns is injured and off the Derby trail, while the previously unbeaten Etched disappointed in his first start in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates 2000 Guineas. Z Humor, 30-1 last week, was raised to 40-1 by Watchmaker after his poor effort in the Sam Davis.

ON THE BUBBLE: Big Truck ran an improved race when finishing second in the Sam Davis last week. His Barclay Tagg-trained stablemate, Elysium Fields, will get a chance to see if he belongs among the top Derby contenders when he runs Sunday in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream. Golden Spikes, Kentucky Bear, and Make the Point are others expected to run in the Fountain of Youth. Any could move into the top 25 with an excellent effort.