Trainer Todd Pletcher had just one victory at Keeneland under his belt going into the April 12 card. But he won again when it counted, and with Monba and Cowboy Cal finishing 1-2 in the $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) (VIDEO), it looks like North America’s leading trainer of 2007 will be headed to the May 3 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) after all.
Meanwhile, the on-fire record of Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Pyro was doused a little as the Steve Asmussen-trained colt finished 10th in a field of 12. Sent off as an even-money favorite, the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) winner never fired in the 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass, which was his first start on Polytrack. Monba, however, was given a perfect lead to the wire by stablemate Cowboy Cal, who showed the way through early fractions of :24.96 and :49.01. Never far back, the 8-1 shot moved up to second to go three-quarters in 1:13.17 while Cool Coal Man traveled in third and Kentucky Bear was fourth.
“He grabbed the bridle right away and I was very happy with that,” said winning jockey Edgar Prado. “He was most of the time controlled and he wanted to go a little early, but I was a very lucky passenger most of the way until I started working on it at the head of the stretch.”
Rating well, Monba was set down for the stretch drive a quarter-mile out, and tenaciously wore down Cowboy Cal after a neck-and-neck battle. Kentucky Bear got up for third, while Stevil made a big move up the rail but ran out of ground to finish fourth. The final time was 1:49.71.
“He was doing everything so easy, I pushed him a little bit past the eighth pole and he responded very well,” Prado said. “(Cowboy Cal) was a very strong rival and he was fighting real hard but my horse was determined to win the race.”
“I was hoping for a dead heat, they were both running so well,” Pletcher joked following the race. “It was nice to see them both show up and run the way they’re capable of. Monba… won an allowance race at Churchill and trained there most of last summer and the fall, so we knew he liked the surface. We were just hoping to get enough graded earnings to get in (the Derby). That’s why we were here so we’ll see how they come out of it, but that’s what we were hoping for.”
It’s been tough going for Pletcher in the months leading up to the Derby, as his 3-year-old prospects failed to deliver in key races across the country. Monba, a son of the late Maria’s Mon owned by Jack Wolf's Starlight Stable, Donald Lucarelli, and Paul Saylor, ran a troubled 12th in the Feb. 24 Fountain of Youth (gr. II) and entered the Blue Grass off that 29 ¾ length loss after running fourth in the Dec. 22 Cash Call Futurity (gr. I) at Hollywood Park. Cowboy Cal’s races were more impressive, but his string of three wins – including a score in the Jan. 1 Tropical Park Derby (gr. IIIT) – came over turf following an uninspiring seventh in a Saratoga maiden race.
In the Blue Grass, however, both runners turned in solid enough performances to earn trips to Churchill Downs for the Derby, with the first- and second-place shares of the purse boosting their earnings to $577,534 (Monba) and $314,708 (Cowboy Cal).
“At the beginning of the year, if you’d asked me which horses I’d like to nominate to the Triple Crown, it would have been these two,” Pletcher said. “Both horses showed today that they belong at the highest level and both have pedigrees to show they should run a mile and a quarter. So we hope to show up with the good horse and get lucky on (Derby) day.”
Meanwhile, Pyro’s connections may have been scratching their heads over the results of the race, but assistant trainer Scott Blasi didn’t give any indication that the colt’s poor placing would change his path to the Derby.
“We brought our horses here to train because we thought this surface was the safest way to get our horses to the Derby,” Blasi said. “Some horses that train well on it don’t always run that way. He didn’t handle the track; you could see that early on. I don’t put much into (the finish), because I have a lot of confidence in the horse. If he wins the Derby, they’re not going to care anyways.”
Jockey Shaun Bridgmohan, Pyro’s regular rider, said he didn’t get the response he usually feels from the son of Pulpit.
“He just didn’t give me the same run he has,” the jockey said. “I asked him for run around the turn to try and set myself up pretty good and I didn’t get the response I was hoping for. I realized on the turn that it just wasn’t going to be his day. He usually gets himself traveling well by that point. He’s usually a pretty handy horse, and today he just wasn’t.”
Monba returned $19.60, $8.60, and $6.60, while Cowboy Cal and John Velazquez paid $8.80 and $6.60. Kentucky Bear brought $8.20 under Jamie Theriot. Stevil, Visionaire, Miner’s Claim, Halo Najib, Medjool, Cool Coal Man, Pyro, Big Truck, and Stone Bird completed the order of finish.
Of Cool Coal Man’s finish following a Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) win, trainer Nick Zito said the colt will still go on to the Derby although Stevil, Zito's other Blue Grass starter, will not make the graded earnings list – nor will third-place finisher Kentucky Bear.
Monba, however, will land in the top 10 on the graded earnings list for entry in the 20-horse Derby field. Bred in Kentucky by Mill Ridge Farm and Jamm out of the Easy Goer mare Hamba, he has won three races – a maiden special weight at Keeneland last October, a one-mile allowance event at Churchill Nov. 24, and the Blue Grass. According to Pletcher, the plan is to keep the colt – and Cowboy Cal – on a light training schedule in the three weeks leading up to the Derby.
“They’re both tough-minded horses and an energetic kind to train, but the flip side of that is that they’re also lightly-made horses,” he said. “We’ve just been methodically coming along and not trying to make them any fitter than they already are, so we’ll be trying to keep that peak level. I think both horses will need a minimal amount of training between now and (the Derby).”