02/14/2007 12:00AM

Pletcher starts trail with strong hand

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Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Trainer Todd Pletcher hasn't won the Derby, but he has two seconds, a third, and two fourths.

Just when is Todd Pletcher going to finally end our long national nightmare and win the Kentucky Derby? He's been training on his own for, gosh, an entire decade. He's almost 40 years old. It is wearing on him so much, he's turning gray. Just what is taking him so darn long?

In recent years, it seems almost a rite of spring - like cherry blossoms blooming, bears coming out of hibernation, and the Royals being eliminated the first week of the season from the World Series - that Pletcher is viewed through the prism of someone who - horror of horrors - has never won the Derby, as if he should just be able to snap his fingers and have it be thus.

In reality, for someone who started with seven horses in December 1995, he's done fairly well for himself - three Eclipse Awards, record annual purse earnings, access to seats behind the glass at Panthers hockey games. No, he hasn't won the Derby yet, but his record in America's most famous race is far from the abject disaster one might perceive.

Consider that Pletcher had his first Derby starter in 2000, and didn't even have a runner in 2003. He has been in the race just six times. Yet in that time, with 14 starters, he has finished second twice - including last year with Bluegrass Cat - third once, and fourth twice, all in fields that numbered at least 17 runners.

This all becomes germane again because Pletcher - who has 32 Triple Crown nominees in his care - brings a strong hand into the chase for this year's Derby, which will be run on May 5 at Churchill Downs. The inaugural top 25 of Daily Racing Form's finds Pletcher with six runners on the list, including three of the top five.

Circular Quay, the winner of the Hopeful and runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and Scat Daddy, the Champagne Stakes winner, were the most accomplished of Pletcher's 2-year-olds last year, and both are still in the mix this year. Two others have reached prominence. Ravel won the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita in only his third start, and now ranks as one of the best Derby prospects based on the West Coast. And this weekend, Pletcher, who returned from a 45-day suspension a week ago, will send out Any Given Saturday for his highly anticipated first start of the year.

Any Given Saturday stamped himself as a colt to follow by finishing second in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes on Nov. 25 at Churchill Downs to the well-regarded Tiz Wonderful - who is unbeaten, but, alas, injured. In recent weeks, Any Given Saturday has turned in a strong series of works at Palm Beach Downs, where he has been based since the beginning of the year. He will be heading to the $150,000 Sam Davis Stakes on Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs, one of six stakes for 3-year-olds that will be run between Saturday and Tuesday. None are graded.

The Sam Davis, at 1 1/16 miles, was chosen by Pletcher for Any Given Saturday in part because of its timing, and because it follows the same path taken by Bluegrass Cat to the Derby last year. Like Bluegrass Cat, Any Given Saturday is owned by the WinStar Farm of Bill Casner and Kenny Trout.

"The horse is training exceptionally well," Pletcher said this week from Florida. "He's done everything we hoped he would do - put on weight, grown a bit. He's training really well. He's got a terrific series of works."

Also Saturday are the Borderland Derby at Sunland Park and the Turf Paradise Derby. Both are $100,000 races at 1 1/16 miles.

The most significant race of the holiday weekend should be Monday's $250,000 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park, which remains ungraded despite producing recent winners like Smarty Jones and Lawyer Ron. This year's race, at one mile, features the unbeaten Hard Spun, the rapidly improving Forty Grams, and one of last year's better 2-year-olds, Officer Rocket.

Hard Spun most recently won the Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds.

"I was going to work him Wednesday, but the way the weather looked, I worked him Monday," said Larry Jones, the trainer of Hard Spun. "We're supposed to get a good freeze. If we have to walk him in the shed row now until Monday, we're ready."

Pletcher may send Our Sacred Honor to the Southwest. His other Derby Watch runners are Out of Gwedda and Meritocracy, and he remains high on the lightly raced Soaring By.

Also Monday is the $65,000 Fred Capossela Stakes at six furlongs at Aqueduct. On Tuesday, turf horses go 7 1/2 furlongs in the Mardis Gras Stakes at Fair Grounds.

While Pletcher has yet to win the Derby, plenty of trainers with Derby victories placed horses in the top 25 this week, including Barclay Tagg (Nobiz Like Shobiz) and Carl Nafzger (Street Sense), who have the two current favorites for the Derby. Other Derby-winning trainers with horses in the top 25 are Bob Baffert (E Z Warrior), Cam Gambolati (Buffalo Man), and Nick Zito (Forefathers).

Nobiz Like Shobiz, who won the Holy Bull earlier this month, is scheduled to make his next start in the Grade 2, $350,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes on March 3 at Gulfstream Park. That is also the ambitious spot Bill Currin, the trainer and co-owner of Hollywood Futurity winner Stormello, has chosen for his colt's 3-year-old debut.

"I'm tired of them ragging on him that he's West Coast, West Coast, West Coast," Currin said Wednesday. "I figure I'll show them what a West Coast horse can do in the East. I want him to be a stallion one day, so this should give him good exposure. We're ducking no one."

Street Sense, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner, is starting to come around quickly after getting a late start to his serious training this winter. He's on a regular work pattern now. Nafzger said Street Sense could come back as soon as the Grade 2, $150,000 Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream on March 3.

"The window is between that and the Rushaway," Nafzger said, referring to the $100,000 Rushaway Stakes at Turfway Park on March 24. "The window is the 3rd to the 24th. I'm well-satisfied where we're at."

- additional reporting by Mary Rampellini


WHO'S HOT, WHO'S NOT

Who's hot: With all the horses he has at his disposal, you expect three-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher to have multiple candidates. Still, having six of the top 25 on this week's inaugural Derby Watch list, including three of the top five, is pretty impressive. Among other trainers with large outfits, Doug O'Neill has three horses who made the list, and Steve Asmussen has two. There was room for the little guy, too. A significant accomplishment is that of trainer Bill Kaplan, who has about 5 percent the number of horses as Pletcher, yet got two of his runners into the top 25.

Who's not: D. Wayne Lukas has four Derby victories, and more Triple Crown race wins than any trainer, but he failed to land anyone in the top 25. His best candidate, Pegasus Wind, ran poorly in his last start at Oaklawn, which Lukas believes was due to an off track. Dreaming of Anna's owner, Frank Calabrese, might want to rethink his desire to run his champion filly in all three Triple Crown races after her defeat last week in the Old Hat.

On the bubble: Pletcher (Soaring By) and Kaplan (Storm in May) have other candidates who could move onto the list with a misstep by those currently ranked ahead of them.

- Jay Privman