03/29/2006 12:00AM

Stakes chock full of Pletcher

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Gary Rothstein/EquiPhotos
The Todd Pletcher-trained Honey Ryder, shown winning the 2005 Orchid, will defend her title on Saturday.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The Florida Derby won't be the only race of importance Saturday at Gulfstream Park. Six other stakes, three of them graded, will be run on a blockbuster 13-race card that will get off to an earlier start than usual, at noon Eastern.

Predictably, trainer Todd Pletcher has major contenders for most of those undercard stakes, including Honey Ryder, the defending champion in the Grade 3, $150,000 Orchid Handicap, and Go Deputy, who will renew his budding rivalry with Einstein in the Grade 3, $150,000 Pan American Handicap. Pletcher also will send out Bandini in the Grade 3, $100,000 Skip Away Handicap, and Exclusive Quality in the $75,000 Spectacular Bid Stakes.

A brief rundown of the six supporting stakes:

* Olaya, Dynamite Lass, and Kate Winslet are among the seven fillies and mares expected to challenge Honey Ryder in the Orchid at 1 1/2 miles on turf.

* Einstein (119 pounds) and Go Deputy (118) are the highweights among a field of about 10 older horses likely for the Pan Am, also run at 1 1/2 miles on turf.

* Besides Bandini, one other 4-year-old who was making headlines at this time last year - Noble Causeway, the 2005 Florida Derby runner-up - is expected to run in the 1 1/8-mile Skip Away.

* Gygistar, second as the favorite last year, again makes his seasonal debut in the $100,000 Artax Handicap, a 7 1/2-furlong race expected to get about eight older horses.

* Gulch Approval, Sir Shackleton, Cottage, and Spruce Run are the probable favorites in the $75,000 Lure Stakes at a mile on turf.

* Exclusive Quality figures as a heavy choice in a short field expected for the Spectacular Bid at 6 1/2 furlongs.

Except for the Florida Derby, which was drawn Wednesday, entries for the Saturday card were to be drawn Thursday.

Long journey for Sam's Ace

A surprise entry in the Florida Derby was Sam's Ace, a rare California invader. Trainer Doug O'Neill said he and majority owner J. Paul Reddam decided over the weekend to send the California-bred Sam's Ace, who drew post 11, to Gulfstream, partly because a cross-country flight was readily available.

"He got there [Tuesday], so he'll have three gallops over the track by race day," said O'Neill. "I'm not crazy about getting the outside post, but he shouldn't be on the front end anyway. He's got just enough speed that he shouldn't be hung out too far on the first turn."

Sam's Ace, to be ridden by Felipe Martinez, has four races and three trainers on his r?sum?. He was claimed by Paddy Gallagher for $32,000 when he won his debut last September at Del Mar for Jack Carava. Then, following two races for Gallagher, Reddam bought him privately and turned him over to O'Neill, after which the colt won his lone start, a statebred allowance on March 11 at Santa Anita.

There are a few precedents for horses shipping all the way from California to win the Florida Derby. Empire Maker did it three years ago when he romped by 9 1/4 lengths, a race record, but he was the first California-based horse to win the race since Snow Chief in 1986.

Relatively modest crowd expected

For decades, the Florida Derby has been a destination event for thousands of fans who otherwise do not attend racing on a regular basis. But when Gulfstream undertook its $170 million renovation, it may have ended that longstanding tradition for many fans.

Gulfstream president Scott Savin said Wednesday that he expects 12,000 to 15,000 to attend Saturday. That's a far cry from the race's 1980's heyday, when more than 30,000 crammed into the track for the Florida Derby every year.

The new, smaller configuration of Gulfstream almost certainly means the days of 30,000-plus are gone. This year probably will not provide an accurate gauge for future Florida Derby Day attendance, because the track still is only about 90 percent complete, and Gulfstream has geared down its marketing and promotions so as to ensure a crowd of controllable size.

But even when the new plant is up and running at full tilt in future years, the big numbers most likely won't be back, Savin conceded.

"We think we can handle the 12-to-15 pretty comfortably this Saturday," he said. "No one will be turned away. As far as next year, we are looking into the possibility of expanding with some bleacher seating, but first we'll have to see how Saturday goes."

As of Wednesday, virtually all reserved seating was sold out for Saturday, when general admission and parking are free. The north park, a tent pavilion, will handle much of the overflow crowd.

Ex-Bush official now a horse owner

Among the 17 people in the West Point Thoroughbreds syndicate that owns Florida Derby contender Flashy Bull is Tommy Thompson, the former Wisconsin governor who served in the George W. Bush administration as secretary of Health and Human Services until January 2005.

Thompson, a first-time owner, bought into Flashy Bull only after making an offhand comment to West Point founder Terry Finley while leaving the Kentucky Derby last year. Flashy Bull, like 2005 Derby winner Giacomo, was sired by Holy Bull.

"He said, 'I'd love to get into this business,' " said Finley, and after Finley told him about a Holy Bull colt he had bought earlier that spring, "he said, 'Put me in.' "

Reserved table goes unused

Was it just wishful thinking, or did somebody know something? The placards on one of the tables at the Wednesday media luncheon read "Strong Contender," but, alas, the horse was not entered, and the colt's connections were no-shows, too.

In fact, shortly before the Florida Derby field was drawn, trainer John Ward Jr. said he intended to bypass both the Florida Derby and Wood Memorial and run Strong Contender in the April 15 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.

USA Network will televise derby

The Florida Derby telecast will be produced by an NBC Sports crew but will be carried live by the USA cable network on a one-hour broadcast beginning at 5 p.m. Eastern. Post time is 5:42.

The race has direct competition in the same time slot from Final Four pregame ceremonies on CBS and a telecast of the WinStar Derby on ESPN, a network far more familiar to racing fans.