04/06/2004 11:00PM

Pletcher shoots for four of a kind


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Trainer Todd Pletcher is scheduled to run horses in eight stakes around the country this weekend, but the focus will be on the trio of 3-year-olds he hopes run well enough to earn spots in the Kentucky Derby.

Pletcher will have top contenders in all three major Derby preps run on Saturday. In New York, he will send out Florida Derby runner-up Value Plus in the $750,000 Wood Memorial. In Kentucky, Limehouse seeks respect in the $750,000 Blue Grass. In the $1 million Arkansas Derby, the lightly raced Purge will try to earn enough money to secure a spot in the Churchill starting gate on the first Saturday in May.

Pletcher already has one Derby horse, Pollard's Vision, who won last week's Illinois Derby.

Value Plus, a son of 1996 Wood winner Unbridled's Song, comes out of a highly scrutinized Florida Derby. The slow final time (1:51.38) and the meager 92 Beyer Speed Figure assigned the winner, Friends Lake, would indicate it was a suspect group. Pletcher was highly critical of Gulfstream management on the day, claiming it did not keep enough water on the track given the hot, windy conditions. Pletcher believes the dryness of the track accounted for the subpar performances of the field, which included Read the Footnotes, who finished fourth in the Florida Derby after winning the Fountain of Youth, earning a 113 Beyer.

"I understand the bounce theory,'' Pletcher said. "I don't think a quality, consistent horse like the Read the Footnotes - who had been off the board once in six starts - is going to regress 30 Beyer Figure points in a month. I don't buy it. I don't think as a whole, the group that ran in the Florida Derby are as bad as people are saying they are.''

Value Plus had just one seven-furlong race prior to the Florida Derby so Pletcher was not dissatisfied with Value Plus's second-place performance. Pletcher has been very impressed with how Value Plus has trained since the Florida Derby and expects a big effort on Saturday.

For a horse who has won 5 of 8 starts, including two graded stakes this year, Limehouse has flown under the radar screen most of the year. He does not strike most handicappers as a horse who wants to go 10 furlongs, but Limehouse did pass his two-turn debut winning the Tampa Bay Derby.

"I'm not going to compare him to a champion, but he reminds me a lot of Thunder Gulch, a quality horse that keeps winning and nobody talks about him,'' Pletcher said. "He's a solid horse with a big heart who tries awfully hard. He's battle-hardened and he's a horse that doesn't need a race to unfold a particular way.''

Purge, a son of Pulpit, has raced only three times, winning two sprints and finishing second behind undefeated Smarty Jones in the Rebel Stakes last out. He currently has no graded stakes earnings and would need a top two finish in Arkansas to get into the Derby field.

"Being this is the third start of the year and fourth start lifetime, the deck is stacked against him,'' Pletcher said. "He obviously needs to make a move forward. We're going to take the blinkers off so hopefully, he'll be a tad more kind early on.''

Pletcher will be in New York on Saturday where he will also saddle probable favorites Strong Hope in the Grade 1, $350,000 Carter Handicap and Forest Danger in the Grade 3, $150,000 Bay Shore Stakes.

Bride's Best Boy unlikely for Wood

Barring a major defection at entry time Thursday morning, Bride's Best Boy is unlikely to run in Saturday's Grade 1, $750,000 Wood Memorial, trainer Barclay Tagg said.

"I'm not really sure what I'm going to do, but I don't think I'm going to run him,'' Tagg said Wednesday afternoon. "I could change my mind if something drastic happens.''

Tagg has had a difficult time finding a rider for Bride's Best Boy, a factor that has played in his decision to skip the Wood. Tagg said should something happen on Thursday where a horse did not enter the race and a top rider became available, he could change his mind.

Tagg is torn on what to do because he thinks quite highly of Bride's Best Boy despite the colt's relative inexperience. Bride's Best Boy won his maiden at first asking on Jan. 10 but then flipped his palate when well beaten in an entry-level allowance race around two turns on Feb. 14. Following a surgical procedure, called a myectomy, to correct the problem, Bride's Best Boy won a seven-furlong entry-level allowance race at Gulfstream Park by 3 3/4 lengths and earned a 102 Beyer.

One possible scenario for Bride's Best Boy would be to run in the $325,000 Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 17 as a possible prep for the Preakness on May 15.

Well Fancied takes shot at Carter

Trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. had a change of heart and will now run Well Fancied, a winner of graded stakes in his last two starts, in Saturday's Carter.

Originally, Dutrow thought the Carter was going to be too tough of a spot, but with the absence of Congaree and Midas Eyes, plus a plethora of speed in the projected field, the race became more attractive.

"I think we have a legitimate shot at running first, second, or third - I really do," Dutrow said. "I'm happy there is so much speed and I think that can work to our advantage."

Eibar Coa, aboard Well Fancied for his win in the Grade 3 Toboggan in his last start, has the mount.

Well Fancied, a New York-bred, has won six of his last seven starts, including five stakes. A win in the Carter would make Well Fancied a millionaire.

The Carter also is expected to include Strong Hope, Pico Central, Badge of Silver, Eye of the Tiger, Gygistar, Don Six, and Secret Run.

Fragoso due to lose bug

Pablo Fragoso, the country's leading apprentice and currently atop the Aqueduct standings, is scheduled to lose his five-pound apprenticeship on Sunday.

Fragoso will be represented by a new agent, Jose Morales, when he starts his career as a journeyman on April 21, after serving a suspension for careless riding. Mike Kelly currently books mounts for Fragoso, but a New York rule prohibits agents from representing more than one journeyman. Kelly is also the agent for Javier Castellano.

"A lot of people like this kid," Morales said. "I think in the long run, he will be okay getting mounts. I believe he can only get better."

Kelly agrees. "Pablo will do just fine. He's in good hands."

Last year, Fragoso was among the finalists for the Eclipse Award for top apprentice, which was won by Eddie Castro. Fragoso won his first riding title at Aqueduct's 2003-2004 inner-track meet.

On April 14, Fragoso will start serving a careless riding suspension that covers five racing days.

Bouwerie next for Rodeo Licious

Rodeo Licious, who won in her return to the races last Saturday, will be pointed to the $100,000 Bouwerie Stakes for New York-breds at Belmont on May 16.

Rodeo Licious had not run since June, when she won Belmont's Fashion Stakes against open company for trainer Carl Deville. A 3-year-old daughter of Rodeo, Rodeo Licious underwent ankle surgery after winning the Fashion and later was transferred to trainer Bruce Levine's barn. Last weekend, she won a second-level allowance race for New York-bred fillies and mares by 5 1/2 lengths and covered six furlongs in 1:10.88.

Levine said Rodeo Licious, who is owned by Our Blue Streaks Stable and Pre K Stable, was ready to run for the last five weeks, but he waited until a restricted race appeared in the condition book, rather than use up a condition in an open race.

"We were just playing with her because I couldn't get a race for her," Levine said. "I didn't want to blow another condition by running in an open race. She ran well the other day; she's pretty talented."

From five career starts, Rodeo Licious has a record of 3-2-0.

Levine recently picked up another stakes runner, Unforgettable Max, for owner Raymond Dweck. Levine, who received six horses from Dweck, said Unforgettable Max, a nominee to the Carter, would await a softer spot. Previously trained by Ben Perkins Jr., Unforgettable Max finished seventh in his last start, the Grade 3 Toboggan on March 13. Earlier this year, he finished second in the Grade 2 General George at Laurel Park.

* Buy the Sport, upset winner of last year's Grade 1 Gazelle Handicap, worked five furlongs in 1:01.58 Wednesday morning over the Belmont training track. Trainer Bob Barbara said if she works this well next week she will run in the $150,000 Bed o' Roses Breeders' Cup Handicap here on April 17.

- additional reporting by Karen M. Johnson