04/09/2008 12:00AM

Time's running out for Pletcher barn

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Just as post positions were about to be drawn on Wednesday for the 12 3-year-olds entered in the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes on Saturday at Keeneland, Jack Wolf, whose Starlight Stable is a co-owner of Monba, muttered to two people sitting next to him at breakfast, "I hope we get No. 5."

After 10 horses had posts assigned, pills 5 and 11 remained, as did slips for Halo Najib and Monba. The 11-pill was drawn, concurrent with Halo Najib's slip. Monba, indeed, got 5.

"That's the longest shot of the whole meet," Wolf said, laughing.

He's hoping another longshot comes in on Saturday. Monba, along with Cowboy Cal, may represent the last chances for their trainer, Todd Pletcher, to have prominent runners in this year's Kentucky Derby. It's a startling position, being as Pletcher has set such lofty expectations. He's won four straight Eclipse Awards, and sent out a record-tying five runners in last year's Derby after winning such major preps as the Fountain of Youth Stakes, Florida Derby, Illinois Derby, and Louisiana Derby.

This year, though, the shelf has been bare.

Pletcher led all trainers this year with 31 original nominees in January to the Triple Crown, including familiar names such as Atoned, Holidaze, Monba, Meal Penalty, Ready's Image, Spanky Fischbein, Talk of a Cat, Texas Wildcatter, and Why Tonto. Two more horses - Behindatthebar and Face the Cat - nominated by other trainers subsequently came to Pletcher's barn via private purchases. And one more horse - Spurrier - was nominated at the second deadline March 27, giving Pletcher 34 nominees.

Yet as the spring preps have unfolded, those horses have collectively disappointed. Cowboy Cal and Why Tonto won stakes on turf, but Pletcher has not won a 3-year-old stakes race on dirt or a synthetic surface this year.

As it stands now, Atoned is on the bubble in terms of graded stakes earnings, and both Cowboy Cal and Monba need top efforts Saturday to advance into the top 20.

"We haven't had as much success as we'd like to have in the preps," Pletcher said at Keeneland on Wednesday morning while watching his horses train. "I can't say, with the exception of Monba in the Fountain of Youth, I'm surprised. At the beginning of the year, I didn't think we had that many certain Kentucky Derby prospects. We put some in spots to find out if they'd step up, but none of them stepped up and surprised us.

"At the beginning of the year, Monba and Cowboy Cal were at the top of the class for us. And now we need them to step up and do something."

Monba won his first two starts last year, then was a fast-finishing fourth in the CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park, in which he finished just a length behind Colonel John, who has gone on to win the Santa Anita Derby. But in his lone start this year, Monba finished last of 12 in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream. He suffered a nasty gash on his right rear leg after being stepped on while being bumped on the first turn. Since that race, he has had throat surgery.

Cowboy Cal was seventh in his lone start on dirt, but that was sprinting in his debut last summer at Saratoga. He then moved to turf, and won three straight races before finishing second to stablemate Why Tonto in the Hallandale Beach Stakes at Gulfstream. Pletcher views the move to Polytrack on Saturday as a good intermediate step.

"I think it makes sense, being as turf form tends to cross over to Polytrack," Pletcher said.

To his credit, Pletcher has handled questions about this year's fallow harvest with the same steady assuredness as last year, when he was plundering everything in sight. There are many in his brethren who do not possess the same emotional balance when fortunes turn against them.

"I'd love to have loads of action, but the success you have with 3-year-olds is directly related to your 2-year-old crop, and, unfortunately, we had a disappointing 2-year-old crop last year," Pletcher said. "We're trying to correct the problem and hopefully come in with a stronger crop of 2-year-olds this year. I know everybody says, 'This 2-year-old crop is the best yet.' Hopefully, by Saratoga we'll know."

Pletcher said many of his horses were nominated to the Triple Crown - the Derby, Preakness Stakes on May 17, and Belmont Stakes on June 7 - as insurance in case they developed. The deadline in January is only $600 per horse.

"We had a bunch at Gulfstream we were hoping would win and move on into stakes," he said. "We were hopeful some would step up. You don't want to be in a position to have to supplement on the Wednesday of Derby Week, and you can't get in. For $600, it's a good insurance program, especially when, for a late-developing horse, you're nominating for three races, not one."

For now, though, the Derby is still of paramount importance. Pletcher has not won the Derby, though he has finished second in it twice.

His two Blue Grass runners both drew excellent posts for the 1 1/8-mile race. Cowboy Cal landed post 3, with Cool Coal Man and Kentucky Bear to his inside. Stevil is between Cowboy Cal and Monba, then come Big Truck, Pyro, Stone Bird, Medjool, Miner's Claim, Halo Najib, and Visionaire.

Mike Battaglia of Keeneland installed Pyro as the even-money favorite. He has both Cowboy Cal and Monba at 15-1, higher even than the 1-in-12 chance Monba had of getting post 5.

In other Derby developments Wednesday:

* Horses on the bubble with graded stakes earnings will move up at least one spot because Turf War, who amassed $405,407, will pass the Derby, according to trainer Mark Casse. "We're not even thinking about it. No chance," said Casse, who said Turf War would make his next start in the ungraded Derby Trial at Churchill Downs on April 26.

* Salute the Sarge also is likely to bypass the Derby, even though he is still scheduled to race next week in the Grade 2, $325,000 Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, trainer Eric Guillot said. Salute the Sarge has $258,940 in graded earnings, so his defection would be additional good news to those on the

bubble.

* Elysium Fields is off the Derby trail and will await races in New York, trainer Barclay Tagg said. Elysium Fields had $70,000 in graded earnings from his second-place finish in the Fountain of Youth.

- additional reporting by Steve Andersen

WHO’S HOT: The lone newcomer to the Derby Watch top 25 is Recapturetheglory, who led from gate to wire in the Illinois Derby last Saturday at Hawthorne. He is 40-1 on the Kentucky Derby future line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form’s national handicapper. Colonel John is now a solid third choice on Watchmaker’s line, at 5-1, following his victory in the Santa Anita Derby. He was 15-1 a week ago. Tale of Ekati, the Wood Memorial winner, also had his price cut sharply by Watchmaker, from 50-1 last week to 15-1.

WHO’S NOT: Yankee Bravo, who finished fourth in the Santa Anita Derby, was removed from the list because of his performance and the fact his graded stakes earnings may be insufficient to get him into the Derby anyway. War Pass, once Watchmaker’s favorite, floated up from 6-1 to 12-1 after finishing second in the Wood Memorial. Denis of Cork, 10-1 a week ago, is now 30-1 after finishing fifth in the Illinois Derby.

ON THE BUBBLE: Cowboy Cal once was a resident of the top 25, and he’ll be right back on the list should he run first or second in the Blue Grass Stakes on Saturday at Keeneland. Halo Najib, another Blue Grass entrant, is also knocking on the door, as is King’s Silver Son, who is scheduled to run in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park on Saturday.

– Jay Privman