05/19/2006 11:00PM

Sunriver right on time

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Making his first start since a third-place finish behind Barbaro in the Florida Derby, Sunriver rallied four wide leaving the far turn and put in a stirring stretch run to nail 13-1 Lewis Michael in the final strides of Saturday's Grade 2, $200,000 . It was just over three lengths back to Strong Contender in third, and Hesanoldsalt was fourth in the field of nine 3-year-olds.

Sunriver, a full brother to champion mare Ashado, was excluded from the Kentucky Derby because of insufficient graded-stakes earnings but was sharp for his first start in seven weeks. He notched the first stakes win of his career after closing relentlessly under Rafael Bejarano to edge Lewis Michael by a neck through a fast final three-eighths in 36.62 seconds.

"He kept coming and finished up big," said winning trainer Todd Pletcher. "It looked like he still had something left at the end. I was a little worried down the backside; they were going as slow as they were."

Owned and bred by Aaron and Marie Jones, Sunriver ran the 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.39 on a track that had been upgraded from good to fast midway through the card and still contained some moisture. He earned $120,000, and paid $4.50 as the favorite.

"This horse really finished strong; I think he could stretch out," said Bejarano.

"He's a pretty kind horse. You can do whatever you want with him," said Pletcher. "We'll talk to the Joneses about the Belmont; it's a possibility."

Four horses bunched up on the front end through a dawdling first quarter in 24.54, at which point second choice Strong Contender poked a head in front of Lewis Michael, Hesanoldsalt, and Testimony, while Sunriver stalked the quartet from close range.

The Wayne Catalano-trained Lewis Michael, the lone stakes winner in the field, took the lead after a half-mile in 48.08, maintained a half-length advantage around the turn in 1:12.77, and spurted clear in midstretch after a mile in 1:37.28. For a moment it appeared he would hang on under Mark Guidry, but Sunriver wore him down nearing the finish.

"We were trying to see if he was a dirt horse, and I think he answered that question today," said Catalano. "The plan was that if he ran well here, he would run in the Belmont."