The Kentucky Derby may be "Presented by Yum! Brands" but it looks like it could be dominated this year by Todd Pletcher.
Pletcher's well-stocked stable of Derby contenders ran off with two of the weekend's top Triple Crown prep races -- the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds and the Gotham at Aqueduct.
In the Louisiana Derby, Circular Quay redeemed himself for a poor finish - resulting primarily from a terrible trip - in the Feb. 10 Risen Star Stakes. After sitting behind horses, the son of 1995 Kentucky Derby winner Thunder Gulch surged to the lead at mid-stretch and drew off handily to win by 2 1/4 lengths over pace-setter Ketchikan. Zanjero finished third.
"He didn't redeem himself so much as he just got a good trip today," Pletcher said. "He was probably the best horse last time. Thank Goodness he came out of it (the Risen Star) okay. Today, this was his natural running style -- to come from the back of the pack with a late run."
Added winning rider John Velazquez: "Today, we finally got a good trip and we got it done. That's about all I can say. We got a good trip and we got it done."
Circular Quay now has four wins from six lifetime starts and has pushed his earnings past the $1 million mark.
In the $200,000 Gotham, Cowtown Cat unleashed his winning run in the stretch, drawing off to win by 2 1/2 lengths over Wafi City. Summer Doldrums was third, another head back, as the favorite.
"There were definitely some tense moments," Pletcher assistant Seth Benzel said of the Gotham. "Ramon (Dominguez) looked like he was confident in the horse he had underneath him. It was a great ride. He put him in a great spot and made his move. He was very comfortable the whole way around. I think that is what ended up getting the job done."
Summer Doldrums' trainer, Rick Violette Jr., bemoaned the lack of early speed. "We knew going in it wasn't going to be his A race," he said. "But I still thought he was going to get it done."
Based on comments at the three tracks, it appears Pletcher's Fountain of Youth winner Scat Daddy will stay at Gulfstream Park to run in the Florida Derby and Cowtown Cat will remain in New York to tackle the Wood Memorial. Circular Quay could move along to the Arkansas Derby or the Blue Grass at Keeneland.
In the day's third Kentucky Derby prep, Bwana Bull came from far back with a strong run in the stretch to win the $200,000 El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows by 1 length over Freesgood. Bwana Bull ran the 1 1/16 mile in 1:43.22 with Russell Baze in the irons. Earlier, the colt won the California Derby. Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said he is leaning toward the Santa Anita Derby as the colt's next start.
Kentucky Oaks preps
-- Rags to Riches has never been in rags -- the well-proportioned daughter of A.P. Indy brought $1.9 million as a yearling -- but she certainly seems on her way to riches. On Sunday, Rags to Riches ran away with the $300,000 Santa Anita Oaks, scoring by 5 1/2 lengths over Silver Swallow, with something to spare. Her domination was so complete, trainer Todd Pletcher said he may be altering his thinking about the filly's future. "When we first started out," he said, "the plan was the Las Virgenes, the Santa Anita Oaks and the Kentucky Oaks. But when you get a filly that's bred like this -- that, obviously, the farther they go, the better she's supposed to get -- it makes you think about other possibilities." The "other possibilities" could include the Santa Anita Derby -- the stepping stone Winning Colors used between vicories in the Santa Anita Oaks and the 1998 Kentucky Derby. Rags to Riches has been nominated to the Triple Crown by her owner, Michael Tabor. "She'll probably stick with the girls," Tabor said cautiously. "But at the end of the day, you never know."
-- Mistical Plan led from gate to wire in winning Saturday's $400,000 Fair Grounds Oaks by 3 1/4 lengths over the favorite, Octave. Whatdreamsrmadeof finished third. "Beautiful," said winning trainer Doug O'Neill. "The last two times, going two turns, we didn't draw the greatest of posts. Corey (Nakatani) rode her beautifully." A daughter of Game Plan, Mistical Plan now has four wins from eight starts, including the Sunshine Millions oaks in her last start. The victory has at least historical significance since the last two winners of the Fair Grounds Oaks -- Ashado and Summerly -- have gone on to win the Kentucky Oaks.
-- In Saturday's $150,000 Bonnie Miss Stakes at Gulfstream Park, High Again pulled away from odds-on favorite Christmas Kid in the stretch to win by 1 1/2 lengths, reversing the outcome of their last meeting. Fee Fi Fo Fum finished third, another length back. High Again, a daughter of High Yield, ran the 9 furlongs in 1:50 4/5 for jockey Cornelio Velasquez. "After today," said winning trainer Bill Mott, "we surely have to be thinking about (the Kentucky Oaks). Way back there in my head, I've been thinking about it. But they have to show you a race like this before you get serious about it. I think she earned her shot into that kind of a race now."
-- Forever Together remained undefeated with a 2-length victory over Silver Knockers in Saturday's $150,000 Forward Gal Stakes. After stalking the early pace, the 3-year-old daughter of Belong to Me too charge entering the stretch. You Asked finished third. Forever Together finished the 7 furlongs in 1:22.60. Earlier, she broke her maiden at Delaware Park and then won a sprint event at Ocala last month. "That was a step up and today was another big step," said Johathan Sheppard, who trains the filly for George Strawbridge. "So far, so good. I can't say what might be next but Mr. Strawbridge is partial to Keeneland."
In other weekend racing:
Master Command, also trained by Todd Pletcher, stalked the early pace in Saturday's $500,000 New Orleans Handicap, got the advantage at the top of the stretch and drew clear to win by 3 1/2 lengths over Patriot Act. Smokeyjonessutton was third, another head back. Master Command, a 5-year-old son of A.P. Indy, ran the 9 furlongs in 1:49.89 under John Velazquez. "I knew the quarter and the half were slow," Velazquez said. "So I was feeling very comfortable. He grabbed ahold of the track right out of the gate and made it look easy."
In the $500,000 Mervin H. Muniz Memorial Handicap, Einstein rallied from just behind the early lead and then held off the late rush of Cloudy's Knight to win by 1/2 length. With Robby Albarado aboard, the 5-year-old Brazilian-bred ran the "about" 9 furlongs on the turf in 1:49.57. "He's really a nice horse," Albarado said. "When I asked him, he responded. He felt the other horse coming to him and he rebroke." The favorite, King's Drama, was pulled up at the five-eighths pole and did not finish.
Smitty's Sunshine won Saturday's $100,000 Bienville Stakes by 3 lengths over Miss Penny Fortune, just missing the course record for the "about" 5 1/2 furlongs on the grass. The 4-year-old Seeking a Home filly stopped the timer at 1:02.92 with Robby Albarado aboard. Somethinaboutbetty was third in the 11-horse field.
Attilla's Storm, toting 120 pounds, held on well to win Saturday's $100,000 Toboggan Handicap by 1 1/4 lengths over Wild Jam. Attilla's Storm, a 5-year-old son of Forest Wildcat, dueled for the lead through hot fractions, then won on class. "I was definitely nervous the last sixteenth," said winning rider Ramon Dominguez. "He had run so fast and was getting tired. He showed his class." Trainer Richard Schosberg said the final time of 1:10.02 was fine, considering the brisk pace and a wide trip. "I'm very pleased with the effort," he said.
Balance had to swing to the far outside to get around a wall of horses at the top of the stretch in Saturday's $300,000 Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap. But she overcame that handicap, running down Ermine for a 1/2-length victory. With Victor Espinoza up for trainer David Hofmans, Balance ran the 9 furlongs in 1:49.25, picking up her second straight stakes win. "I knew everybody would be looking for me so we just had to be patient," said Espinoza. "At the top of the stretch, I was able to swing out and I had a ton of horse. I had no doubt I was going to catch the seven (Ermine), but I was a little concerned in the middle of the turn."
Hofmans also saddled Desert Coded to victory in Saturday's $106,600 Baldwin Stakes for 3-year-olds. Desert Coded set a stakes record, finishing the 6 1/2 furlongs over firm turf in 1:11.96. Desert Coded, a son of E Dubai, beat Bitter Pill by 1 3/4 lengths, with Vaunt third. "I think he found his home on this turf course," Hofmans said.
India, trained by Todd Pletcher, stalked the pace in Saturday's $175,000 Azeri Breeders' Cup, came around the leader turning for home and seemed a sure winner. Then, she had to turn back the late run of Kettleoneup to win by a head at the wire. Calvin Borel, up on Kettleoneup, claimed foul for the stretch run but the stewards let the result stand. India, a 5-year-old Hennessey mare, won for the fifth time in 11 starts.
Magna Graduate -- yet another Pletcher charge -- came to pace-setting Jonesboro at the top of the stretch in Friday's $150,000 Razorback Handicap and drew clear, winning off by 1 3/4 lengths. Louisiana shipper Student Council put in a late bid to finish second. Magna Graduate, a 5-year-old son of Honor Grades, won for the eighth time in 21 starts.
Round Pond's 2007 debut was spoiled in Sunday's $200,000 Rampart Handicap as Miss Shop rallied along the inside turning for home and went on to win by a convincing 6 3/4 lengths over Prop Me Up. The winner's stablemate, Swap Fliparoo, finished third and Round Pond, winner of last year's Breeders' Cup Distaff, faded in the late going to finish fourth. With Rafael Bejarano up. Miss Shop, a 4-year-old daughter of Deputy Minister, ran the 9 furlongs in 1:42.42. Trainer Michael Matz said Round Pond tied up early in the week and will come back in the April 7 Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park if she is okay until then.
Smokey Stover sat just off the pace until the stretch run in Sunday's $100,000 Bay Meadows Breeders' Cup Sprint, then simply took charge and loped on home. Britt's Jules rallied in the final sixteenth to finish second, 1 length back Smokey Stover, winning for the third straight race, finished the 6 furlongs in 1:08.4 under Aaron Gryder.