Pletcher primes more contenders

Trainer could send five in final weekend's preps

Horse Racing

April 05, 2004|By Bill Christine | Bill Christine,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Trainer Todd Pletcher, who started four horses in his first Kentucky Derby, in 2000, could have five contenders for this year's race running in prep races this weekend. This comes on the heels of Pletcher's winning the Illinois Derby with Pollard's Vision, a one-eyed horse, at Hawthorne on Saturday.

The last round of major preps for the Kentucky Derby, which will be run at Churchill Downs on May 1, comes Saturday with the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, the Blue Grass at Keeneland and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. All three are 1 1/8 -mile races, an eighth of a mile short of the Kentucky Derby distance.

Pletcher's Value Plus is a definite for the Wood, and he might also run Chapel Royal at Aqueduct. Pletcher has Limehouse penciled in for the Blue Grass and Purge for the Arkansas Derby. In another race for 3-year-olds at Aqueduct, the seven-furlong Bay Shore, Pletcher is expected to run Forest Dollar.

The Kentucky Derby picture is very much up in the air after last weekend. Each member of the Triple Crown panel picked a different horse first. Friends Lake, winner of the Florida Derby, ended up first. It's a position he's likely to hold because he doesn't run again until the Kentucky Derby.

Pletcher, 36, is a son of a trainer and a former Wayne Lukas assistant who set up his own stable in 1996. Four years later, he saddled a Kentucky quartet, with the best finishers Impeachment and More Than Ready, who ran third and fourth, respectively as Fusaichi Pegasus became the first favorite to win the Derby in 20 years. Since then, Pletcher has run three more horses in the Derby, with Invisible Ink, a 55-1 shot, finishing second behind Monarchos.

Limehouse won a pair of sprint stakes at Churchill Downs early last year, then lost three straight before beginning this year with a pair of wins - most recently in the Tampa Bay Derby. The favorites in the Blue Grass will be Lion Heart and Preachinatthebar, who are shipping in to Keeneland from Santa Anita.

Value Plus cost his owners, Aaron and Marie Jones of Eugene, Ore., $1.1 million at a Keeneland yearling sale in 2002. The gray colt finished second to Friends Lake in the Florida Derby last month. Bettors are likely to send off Value Plus, Master David or Eddington as the favorite in the Wood, which has produced three Kentucky Derby winners - Fusaichi Pegasus, Monarchos and Funny Cide - in the past four years.

Pletcher is playing catch-up with Purge, who's had only three starts. He won the first two, but ran into the Smarty Jones steamroller in the Rebel at Oaklawn on March 20 and finished second after setting the pace.

Undefeated Smarty Jones, an Arkansas Derby probable, has won five races, the last two at Oaklawn, but nationally he's failed to cause much buzz, partly because he was bred in Pennsylvania.

Another horse Smarty Jones will have to beat at Oaklawn is Borrego, a Hollywood Park-based colt whose breeding reads grass, but has run three solid races on dirt since trainer Beau Greely made the switch. Borrego was second to Master David in the Sham at Santa Anita and was runner-up to Wimbledon in the Louisiana Derby.

Wimbledon's stock fell Saturday when he finished fifth as the favorite in the Santa Anita Derby, but his trainer, Bob Baffert, who has won three Kentucky Derbys since 1997, is still planning to run him at Churchill Downs.

The Santa Anita Derby could account for five Kentucky Derby starters, including Castledale, who won at 30-1 on Saturday. The others would be Imperialism, Rock Hard Ten, Quintons Gold Rush and Wimbledon.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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