By RICHARD ROSENBLATT
AP Racing Writer
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Todd's squad came through in the nick of
time at Keeneland.
Down to perhaps his last chance to return to the Kentucky Derby,
trainer Todd Pletcher now has two contenders after Monba beat
stablemate Cowboy Cal by a neck in the Blue Grass Stakes on
"I was hoping for a dead heat at the end," said Pletcher, who
last year saddled a record-tying five Derby starters. "They were
both running so well. You hate to see one of them lose."
The result gives the nation's top trainer a pair of 3-year-olds
on the rise and with enough prize money for the Derby in three
Cowboy Cal and Monba ran 1-2 around the far turn over the
synthetic surface Polytrack. Urged on by Edgar Prado, Monba wore
down Cowboy Cal in the stretch with 27-1 long shot Kentucky Bear 1¼
lengths farther back in third.
Pyro, the even-money favorite in the $750,000 Grade 1 race,
finished 10th in the 12-horse field but still is headed to the
Derby. So is Cool Coal Man, the Fountain of Youth winner who ran
ninth as the 6-1 second choice.
A year ago, Pletcher sent out a record-equaling five horses in
the Derby, with his best finish a sixth place by Circular Quay.
Pletcher is 0-for-19 in the Derby, but won his first Triple Crown
race last year when the filly Rags to Riches captured the Belmont
The Blue Grass was a dash for cash - and Monba and Cowboy Cal
hit the jackpot for Pletcher. If more than 20 are entered in the
Derby, preference is given to horses with the highest graded stakes
Monba came in ranked 41st and Cowboy Cal 39th. Monba earned
$465,000 to move into the top 10, while Cowboy Cal collected
$150,000 to move into the top 20 at $207,600.
"Both horses showed they belong at the highest level and both
horses' pedigree suggests that they'll run a mile and quarter,"
said Pletcher, who led all trainers with 31 Triple Crown nominees
plus three more sent to his barn. "You just got to hope you show
up with a healthy horse and get lucky on the day."
In Saturday's other Derby prep, Gayego won the Arkansas Derby,
with Asmussen's Z Fortune finishing second. Both horses now have
more than enough graded stakes earnings to run in the Derby.
Also, Hey Byrn won the Holy Bull Stakes but remains a long shot
to make the Derby field.
Pyro, the top Derby contender off victories in the Risen Star
and the Louisiana Derby, was about 10 lengths off the lead around
the far turn, and never produced his patented finishing kick under
jockey Shaun Bridgmohan.
Pyro's finish in his first race over Polytrack likely cost him
top billing at the Derby, with Florida Derby winner Big Brown now
expected to be the favorite.
"He didn't give me the same run as he has," said Bridgmohan.
"I asked him fro run around the turn to try and set myself up
pretty good and I didn't get the response I was hoping for."
Added Scot Blasi, assistant to Pyro trainer Steve Asmussen: "He
didn't handle the track, you could see that early on."
Stevil finished fourth, followed by Visionaire, Miner's Claim,
Halo Najib, Medjool, Cool Coal Man, Pyro, Big Truck and Stone Bird.
Monba paid $19.60, $8.60 and $6.60. Cowboy Cal, ridden by John
Velazquez, returned $8.80 and $6.60, and Kentucky Bear paid $8.20
to show. The winning time for 1 1-8 miles was 1:49.71 before a
crowd of 26,000 on a cloudy and unseasonably cool day.
Monba showed he is no slouch despite finishing last in the
Fountain of Youth on Feb. 24 in his last race. The colt suffered a
gash in his right rear leg during the race, and later underwent
throat surgery. Monba, a gray son of Maria's Mon, has three wins in
five starts for owner Starlight Stable.
Cowboy Cal, meanwhile, ran well on Polytrack and has won three
times on the turf. The big question is how well the son of Giant's
Causeway can run on the dirt in the Derby.
Before winning the Blue Grass for the second time, Pletcher's
3-year-olds had not won a Derby prep - a year ago his colts were
winning just about all of them. Pletcher's Bandini won the 2005
- Visionaire's fifth-place finish was worth $22,500 and boosted
the colt's graded stakes earnings to $202,500 - good enough to stay
in the top 20. But trainer Michael Matz, who conditioned 2006 Derby
winner Barbaro, said he will reassess Visionaire's Derby status.
Cool Coal Man will be trainer Nick Zito's second Derby hopeful.
War Pass already is on his way to Louisville.
Big Truck, trained by Barclay Tagg, came into the race ranked
18th on the list, and likely will be on the bubble after all the
preps have been run. Tagg already has a Derby starter in Tale of
Ekati, who won the Wood Memorial last week with Prado aboard.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)