09/28/2005 11:00PM

Pletcher's decision could be a clue


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Neither Beyer Speed Figures, nor class, nor recent form point to an upset winner in Saturday's Grade 2, $750,000 Super Derby at Louisiana Downs. Look beyond the obvious, however, and a playable price horse appears: Desert Breeze.

Desert Breeze? The horse who finished fourth at 3-5 odds in his last start in a two-other-than race Sept. 1 at Monmouth Park? That would be him.

Despite his apparent shortcomings - no stakes experience, a poor last-race effort, and no Beyers above 91 - there are some indications he is sitting on a career-best race. You just have to look to the logic behind his seemingly illogical presence in the race.

Consider where he is based - at Monmouth Park in New Jersey - which is within a three-hour van ride to a wide array of tracks, and about an hour to The Meadowlands and Belmont Park. Following his poor effort, most conservative horsemen would have placed this horse right back in allowance company, likely close to home. If a more aggressive trainer still had faith in the horse, he might have considered a nearby stakes race. Few would go looking for Grade 2 stakes company, 1,400 miles away, on the heels of such a lackluster performance. Yet that is what Todd Pletcher, the trainer of Desert Breeze, is doing.

Forget Desert Breeze's relatively unaccomplished past performances and look at the stakes on tap this weekend. The $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup for 3-year-old olds and up is the weekend highlight, but there are numerous stakes limited to 3-year-olds this weekend, such as the $250,000 Pegasus Handicap at The Meadowlands on Friday evening, the $500,000 Indiana Derby at Hoosier Park on Saturday evening, and of course, the Super Derby.

With so much money on the line, you would expect a trainer like Pletcher, who has a deep stable, to be well represented. Indeed he is. Flower Alley, the hottest 3-year-old in the country after winning the Travers, is being tested in the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup against older horses. No surprise there. What is surprising, though, is where Pletcher is running his other 3-year-olds. Magna Graduate, who in the eyes of most would be considered Pletcher's second best active 3-year-old on dirt, is entered in Friday night's Pegasus at the Meadowlands.

To put that in perspective, Pletcher is putting a big-name in Magna Graduate in a $250,000 race and placing Desert Breeze, a no-name, in a $750,000 race. The safe move would have been to keep Desert Breeze in New Jersey for the Pegasus and ship Magna Graduate to chase the bigger purse in the Super Derby.

It is the kind of bold decision a coach makes when he plays an untested or struggling player in an important game. By doing so, the coach says, I know this player is better than what the stats suggest. That is what Pletcher is telling bettors about Desert Breeze.

With the faith of an Eclipse Award-winning trainer behind Desert Breeze, chances are likely the horse is going to outrun his odds.

Working in his favor is that all the favorites have holes. Likely favorite Real Dandy lacks speed and has sometimes shown hanging tendencies; probable second favorite Smokescreen has never won a stakes race and is trouble-prone; speedster The Daddy is stretching out from seven furlongs to 1 1/4 miles; and the locally based Royal Saint has yet to venture into graded stakes company.

I also like that Chris DeCarlo is named to ride Desert Breeze. DeCarlo has a winning history with Pletcher, who tends to use DeCarlo often outside his home base of New York. The duo is winning at a 24-percent clip together this year with a $2 return on investment, which beats the track takeout at $1.93.

Desert Breeze should start at higher than his 9-2 price on the track morning line.

Layoff could hurt Scrappy T

Scrappy T is the best horse in Saturday's Indiana Derby, having been a clear second to Afleet Alex in the Preakness Stakes. His fitness is an issue, however, since he has not raced since May and shows a limited work tab.

My choice is Don't Get Mad, the Ron Ellis-trained horse who rallied for fourth in the Travers at Saratoga. Since that race, Don't Get Mad has been based at Churchill Downs in Kentucky with Ellis's brother-in-law, trainer Paul McGee.

Don't Get Mad has run many of his best races after working over the Churchill surface for McGee. Another top effort is expected.