Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Pletcher scores prep trifecta

Jay Privman,
Daily Racing Form

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Todd Pletcher may appear unflappable in public, but it's only because he tries mightily to keep his emotions in check, and on Saturday, knowing many of his Kentucky Derby prospects would be competing in just a few hours, the stress was written all over Pletcher's face.

Yet by sundown Saturday at Gulfstream Park, Pletcher could finally allow himself to relax. A powerful victory by Eskendereya in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream, and encouraging wins by Discreetly Mine in the Risen Star at Fair Grounds and Connemara in the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields made for a Super Saturday for the trainer.

"It's exciting when you have these types," Pletcher said. "By the same token, you hold your breath. It's still early in the game. There's a long way to go."

The challenge now for Pletcher is figuring out how to move his chess pieces into the spots provided. In addition to those three runners, he has Aikenite, the third-place finisher in the Fountain of Youth, plus Rule and Super Saver. He would like to keep everyone apart, but that's something his embarrassment of riches may not allow.

Eskendereya could come back in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream on March 20, though the new scheduling of that race - six weeks before the May 1 Kentucky Derby - bothers Pletcher, who wishes it would have been left five weeks in front of the Derby as in recent years. Rule is likely to end up in the Florida Derby, too, Pletcher said.

"That's the most likely race for Eskendereya," Pletcher said Monday. "He is 2 for 2 here. The luxury we have is that if we need more time, there's other races a week or two later, like the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 3."

By contrast, the spacing of the Risen Star to the March 27 Louisiana Derby to the Kentucky Derby is perfect for Discreetly Mine, Pletcher said.

"It's five weeks to the Louisiana Derby and then five weeks to the Derby, and he showed he likes that track," Pletcher said.

Eskendereya got a Beyer Speed Figure of 106 in the Fountain of Youth. It is the biggest figure of the year by any 3-year-old. Discreetly Mine got a 94, and Connemara an 83. In the other graded stakes for 3-year-olds on Saturday, D' Funnybone got a 99 Beyer for his victory in the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream, and Conveyance got a 97 in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn.

Eskendereya is unbeaten in three starts on dirt. His worst performance came on the Santa Anita Pro-Ride in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, in which he encountered traffic on the first turn and finished ninth.

"The first turn, I knew he had no chance to win," Pletcher said. "It reminded me of what you sometimes see in the first turn of the Kentucky Derby with all the crowding. For a couple of strides, he was not on the ground. He was sandwiched between horses and kind of got picked up and carried along. Plus, we were throwing a lot at him that day. It was only his third start, and his first on a synthetic surface."

D' Funnybone will come back in the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby, trainer Rick Dutrow said. In his only try around two turns, D' Funnybone finished last of 13 in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but that was his only race on a synthetic surface.

"We don't know if it was the synthetic surface or the distance," Dutrow said. "He deserves another chance."

Jackson Bend, who finished a distant second in the Fountain of Youth, will leave Florida and make his next start in the Wood Memorial, trainer Nick Zito said.

"No way I can run him back in the Florida Derby," Zito said. "That would be suicide. Right or wrong? He's too small and ran too hard to come back off two races like that in four weeks. He needs another two weeks, so that makes the Wood the logical spot."

Aikenite ran well on a synthetic surface at Keeneland last fall and is headed there for the Blue Grass Stakes on April 10, Pletcher said.

Plans are uncertain for Buddy's Saint, who beat just one horse after encountering severe traffic problems on the inside heading into the first turn. Trainer Bruce Levine said Buddy's Saint emerged from the race unscathed. The Florida Derby and Wood are among the races being considered.

In New Orleans, the first three finishers of the Risen Star could come back in the Louisiana Derby, though Steve Klesaris, the trainer of runner-up Tempted to Tapit, said the Sunland Derby on March 28, newly graded this year and worth $800,000, was a possibility.

At Oaklawn Park, "we accomplished two things," said Bob Baffert, who trains the unbeaten Conveyance.

"We found out the horse likes dirt, and Martin Garcia, he handled the pressure well," Baffert said. "Both shipped well."

Garcia was a late substitution owing to the postponement of the Southwest from Monday to Saturday. Garrett Gomez was originally set to ride Conveyance on Feb. 15, but he had prior commitments at Gulfstream last Saturday, including riding the top turf horse Courageous Cat.

Conveyance is returning to Baffert's Santa Anita barn. No decision has yet been made on where he goes next, Baffert said, though the Rebel, at Oaklawn on March 13, and the Sunland Derby are under consideration.

Dublin, the Southwest runner-up, will come back in the Rebel, trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.

"He's such a big, powerful horse the ground has a tendency to give away from him at the gate a little bit and that stumble the second stride compromised him, got him much further back than we wanted to be or hoped to be," Lukas said.

- additional reporting by Marcus Hersh, Mary Rampellini, and Mike Welsch

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