03/24/2005 1:00AM

Safe to say Pletcher is high on Flower Alley

Texcess has the fastest last-out Beyer, a 92, in the field for Saturday's Lane's End.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - When playing blackjack, it is best to assume that the dealer's down card is a face card or a 10. To assume less is a dangerous practice, one that typically leads to losses from underestimating the opposition.

When Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher starts Flower Alley, a horse with only a single victory, in Saturday's Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park, bettors should read him like a blackjack dealer and presume that he is sitting on a nice hand.

Although short on experience, Flower Alley looks like a quality horse, and all the signals coming from Pletcher hint of bigger things to come.

As most are aware, Pletcher is loaded with quality 3-year-olds. He has Bandini, the Fountain of Youth runner-up; Vicarage, the Louisiana Derby second-place finisher; and Proud Accolade, winner of the Champagne and Hutcheson Stakes. He also has numerous other exciting, lightly raced prospects, such as Coin Silver and Monarch Lane.

Armed with so much talent, Pletcher could have opted to run one of these in the 1 1/8-mile Lane's End. In the hands of most trainers, Proud Accolade would have been the choice.

But after a minor illness interrupted Proud Accolade's training, Pletcher opted for a more conservative route and placed him in the 1 1/16-mile Rushaway on the Lane's End undercard.

Why would Pletcher skip a $500,000 race to run in a $100,000 one? He has said that the Proud Accolade has only recently begun to return to full strength, and the shorter distance and easier company in the Rushaway make that race a better fit.

That noted, my instinct tells me that Pletcher also believes he has an adequate Lane's End replacement in Flower Alley. The colt's recent works suggest as much. Since winning his maiden Feb. 19, he has worked three times at Palm Meadows, going six furlongs in 1:14.40 on March 6, six furlongs in 1:11.80 on March 13, and five furlongs in 1:01 on March 20.

Those times alone indicate his sharpness, but it is the details of those works that jump out, specifically his March 13 drill. That morning, Flower Alley worked in company with Ashado, last year's champion 3-year-old filly, and together they posted the fastest six-furlong work of the winter at Palm Meadows. Not even Saint Liam worked that quick there, with his fastest six-furlong drill over the winter being 1:12.

It is revealing that Pletcher would forgo working Flower Alley with another 3-year-old and breeze him in company with such a talented older horse, if only for a work or two. He must hold him in very high regard.

Works alone should rarely be a basis for supporting a horse, and there is more to Flower Alley than that. His maiden win at Gulfstream last month was a beauty. Breaking sharply from the outside, he initially went to the lead under Jorge Chavez but was passed down the backstretch by several rivals to his inside, including 3-5 favorite Wall Street, another Pletcher trainee. Facing the prospect of racing wide into the turn, Chavez nudged Flower Alley along to re-engage the leaders, and Flower Alley made a long, sustained run to wear down Wall Street, who had the benefit of a ground-saving trip. Flower Alley won by three-quarters of a length, with Wall Street 5 3/4 lengths in front of third-place finisher Celestial Arc.

A son of Distorted Humor, Flower Alley ran a mile in 1:37.55, earning an 88 Beyer Speed Figure. Of all the races for 3-year-olds who ran at Gulfstream at a mile this winter, his race ranks as the fifth fastest in terms of Beyers. Only the talented 3-year-olds Sun King, High Fly, Bellamy Road, and Yankee Penny have run faster at a mile at Gulfstream.

Offsetting his inexperience is the fact that Flower Alley's opponents appear slow in comparison to past Lane's End fields. Eleven of the past 13 winners of this race ran at least a 94 Beyer in their race preceding the Lane's End.

This year, no Lane's End starter comes off a race that fast. Texcess (92), Magna Graduate (91), and Wild Desert (90) are the only starters coming off Beyers in the 90's.

In defense of Spanish Chestnut, the likely favorite, he seemed short when running in the March 5 Santa Catalina at Santa Anita, fading to be third behind Declan's Moon and earning an 87 Beyer. He ran quicker in his preceding race, when he won the San Rafael wire to wire, posting a 93 Beyer.

Texcess, winner of the $1 million Delta Jackpot, and Spanish Chestnut are deserving headliners and certainly look tough. But their virtues are apparent in the past performances, likely resulting in little value.

The track morning line has Spanish Chestnut favored at 5-2 odds, with Texcess listed at 6-1. Texcess has no chance to start at 6-1; he is more likely to be half that price.

Flower Alley, 8-1 on the track morning line, is admittedly at a significant seasoning disadvantage in the Lane's End. With just two starts under his belt and no experience against winners or in two-turn races, he will have to be a special colt to win.

But after Flower Alley worked with Ashado, I doubt he will be intimidated. He is a play at a price.