03/03/2005 1:00AM

Pletcher's confidence in Bandini a good clue


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The rationale for my choice in Saturday's at Gulfstream Park does not involve speed figures, class, or workouts. It is simply about money.

Forget the $300,000 purse. That amounts to only a percentage of what is on the line.

If Bandini wins the Fountain of Youth for owners Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith, they and the other players at Coolmore Stud would reap a financial reward from standing Bandini's sire, Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus. A key win in an important Derby prep would likely create further interest in the sire from breeders, and when dealing with a stud that stands for $150,000, a little interest goes a long way toward padding the pocketbook.

Consider this - if Fusaichi Pegasus is bred to 10 more mares this spring as a result of his offspring's success, that would generate an additional $1.5 million in revenue for Coolmore.

So how does this affect Bandini in the Fountain of Youth? Obviously, his connections cannot give him a big pep talk or let him know what is on the line - at least it wouldn't do any good. He will win or lose based on his ability.

But his mere presence in the Fountain of Youth suggests that his owners and trainer Todd Pletcher view him as a top-flight 3-year-old. Such an assessment from winning connections commands respect.

They realized his potential when they paid $500,000 to buy him at auction 1 1/2 years ago. Now they are swinging for the fences.

Following two easy victories at Gulfstream in the maiden and allowance ranks, Pletcher and company are testing him in a key stakes race when easier prizes elsewhere were available. That is a highly favorable signal coming from people accustomed to winning.

As most are aware, Pletcher and John Velazquez, Bandini's rider, won Eclipse Awards last year. Tabor and Smith also did quite well. Horses racing in partnership for them have compiled a 30-11-8-2 record in North America since the start of 2004, earning nearly $1.9 million. Lion Heart and Sense of Style were two of their graded stakes winners last year. The unbeaten Maddalena, who runs in Saturday's Forward Gal Stakes at Gulfstream, is one of their 2005 stars.

If Bandini is to become a graded winner himself, he will need to continue the rapid development he has shown in 2005. Papi Chullo, Kansas City Boy, and High Fly - three of his chief rivals in the Fountain of Youth - have all run faster than him recently, all in stakes races. Bandini has never even run in a stakes race.

Of those opponents, High Fly should prove the most challenging adversary. Although beaten as the favorite when third in the Holy Bull on Feb. 5, he lost little in defeat. High Fly was wide throughout and overeager in his first start around two turns. He will benefit from that experience.

High Fly could be overbet, however following a much publicized trainer switch. Going from Bill White to Nick Zito, the public figures to pounce all over him, knowing Zito's success with Derby horses and his accomplishments with 3-year-olds. The addition of Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, who replaces Eddie Castro, will further drive down High Fly's price.

Zito and Bailey are certainly among the best at their profession, but I also hold White and Castro in high regard. The changes are relatively insignificant.

As for the others, I'm somewhat intrigued by Kansas City Boy, who is coupled in the wagering with Wild Desert. He has shown rapid progress since being stretched out to two turns.

Kansas City Boy has always been cut out to be a good horse. In September 2003 he was purchased for $170,000, which made him the most expensive Boston Harbor yearling sold at Keeneland that year.

Following narrow defeats in the Lecomte and Holy Bull Stakes, Kansas City Boy appears to be putting things together, though he remains eligible for his first-level allowance condition. He is set to have his blinkers removed for the Fountain of Youth, a move that may make him more competitive.

Kansas City Boy's trainer, Ken McPeek, also entered Wild Desert, the third-place finisher in the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill last fall. He, too, is a quality horse, but he has not raced for over three months, which puts him at a fitness disadvantage. McPeek reportedly plans to run only one of the two.

Although these runners command respect, Bandini has the largest upside and is the play in the Fountain of Youth.