Circular Quay's victory in the Louisiana Derby continued trainer Todd Pletcher's dominance in Triple Crown preps. .<br><a target="blank" href="">Order This Photo</a>

Circular Quay's victory in the Louisiana Derby continued trainer Todd Pletcher's dominance in Triple Crown preps. .
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Skip Dickstein

Kentucky Derby Trail: Torrid Todd Takes Two...Or Was it Three?

Todd Pletcher is dominating the Derby trail. Todd Pletcher is dominating the Derby trail. Todd Pletcher is dominating the Derby trail. Remember the kid in school who is forced by the teacher to write something over and over on the blackboard? Well, sorry, folks, but Mr. Pletcher is making us all write the same column over and over every week.

By the time Pletcher reaches Louisville, he will have as many conquests and will have engaged in as much plundering as General Sherman on his march to Atlanta. But let’s put a lighter spin on this admittedly overuse of metaphors. Let’s look at it more as a Saturday jukebox party. It’s all so simple. You just put a quarter in the jukebox and out comes a hit record. So what, if almost every hit of 2007 is by the same artist. It’s still a party; just dance to the music and try to enjoy it as best you can.

OK, no more metaphors, I promise. It was merely a ploy to get the attention of those uninspired by the monopolistic practices that have taken control of this year’s Derby trail. Once we’ve come to terms with the fact that the 2007 Kentucky Derby Presented by Pletcher…I mean Yum! Brands (gr. I) will be more about one trainer’s dominance – maybe two if Doug O’Neill can rebound off Liquidity’s disappointing race – the easier it will be to just sit back and appreciate what we’re witnessing. There’s always next year to return to fairy tales.

For one trainer to have saddled seven individual stakes winners and two stakes-placed horses on the Derby trail by March 10 is nothing short of astounding. Just count them – Circular Quay (gr. II Louisiana Derby), Scat Daddy (gr. II Fountain of Youth), King of the Roxy (gr. II Hutcheson Stakes), Ravel (grade III Sham Stakes), Cowtown Cat (gr. III Gotham Stakes), Twilight Meteor (gr. IIIT Hallandale Beach Handicap), Any Given Saturday (Sam F. Davis Stakes), and Sam P. (second in the gr. II Robert B. Lewis Stakes) and Grapelli (third in the gr. II San Rafael Stakes).

Pletcher is so overloaded he’s already been forced to start knocking off his own Derby hopefuls (Meritocracy, Soaring By, Out of Gwedda, and Air Lord) and there will be more, as there are only so many Derby preps to go around. Such is the price of gluttony. Even the ravenous Pletcher can only ingest so much.

As for his two stakes victories this week, Circular Quay made a deep, talented Louisiana Derby field look ordinary as he blew by everyone and drew off in one of those typical Fair Grounds outside sweeps from last to first. Once he got rolling, he turned in strong third and fourth quarters in :23 2/5 and :24 1/5, respectively, and being “only” a dozen lengths off a :46 2/5 half and seven lengths off a 1:10 4/5 three-quarters bodes well for his ability to remain in reasonable contact with the leaders, which in turn puts him in good position and leaves him ample time to unleash his devastating stretch run. It was also refreshing to see John Velazquez hand ride him down that long Fair Grounds stretch.

The son of Thunder Gulch has had his doubters all along, who felt he was more of a one-turn closer, even though none of his two-turn defeats could be held against him. In the Lane’s End Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I) he never seemed to take to the Polytrack surface and didn’t have his usual punch, finishing second to Great Hunter.

In the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I), he had a terrible trip right from the start, getting bumped and pinched back and dropping some 20 lengths out of it down the backstretch. He made up a ton of ground through traffic, but had to fan seven wide, while the victorious Street Sense had a rail-skimming trip over what many believed to be an inside biased track. Circular Quay closed strongly, and while the winner was long gone, he did pull away from the third-place finisher Great Hunter.

And then, of course, there was his throw-out race in the Risen Star Stakes (gr. III), in which he had to do some acrobatics to avoid going down when the horse in front of him clipped heels, unseating his rider. After appearing to be eased, he somehow came on again to finish a fast-closing fifth. In the Louisiana Derby, he finally got a chance to show what he’s capable of doing with a clean trip.

Even going back to last August at Saratoga, if you asked Pletcher’s help who their favorite 2-year-old was, most everyone would have said Circular Quay. If you asked them this year, even before the Louisiana Derby, you’d have gotten the same answer – from assistants to exercise riders to even owners. There is something about this colt that endears himself to everyone who comes in contact with him. It’s a combination of personality, class, and overall talent. And that incredible closing kick doesn’t hurt either, especially considering he needs no encouragement in the stretch. In short, he’s just a great horse to be around. And now he’s back up at the top -- or close to it – of everyone’s list of Derby contenders.

If he ventures up to New York for the Wood Memorial (gr. I), which is likely, considering he’ll be kept as far away from Polytrack as possible, he could run into his stablemate Cowtown Cat, who became yet another Pletcher Derby contender after his impressive victory in the Gotham Stakes.

Pletcher was convinced the son of Distorted Humor  wanted to go two turns after his third in the Swale Stakes (gr. II), and he was proven right, as the handsome chestnut settled nicely along the inside after breaking from the rail. Jockey Ramon Dominguez waited for a hole to open, and when it did he charged through and began closing in on Darley Stable’s Wafi City, who had overcome a poor star and opened a clear lead in midstretch.

Wafi City’s assistant trainer Artie Magnuson, watching on the TV monitor in the paddock began cheering wildly when his colt opened up on the field. But then Cowtown Cat came into the picture, and we all know by now that once a Pletcher horse appears on the left side of the TV screen you can bet it will be the first to disappear off the right side of the screen.

And so it was yet again, as Cowtown Cat, reaching out with long, fluid strides, charged right on by and drew off to a 2 1/2-length victory, winning with his ears pricked. It must be remembered that the fractions of :49 2/5 and 1:13 2/5 were extremely slow, so on one hand it was impressive that he was able to settle coming off sprint races and run down the leader. But on the other hand, they won’t be going that slow in the Wood when he’ll have to face much better horses. From a visual standpoint, he certainly looks and runs like a horse who wants to keep going.

Speaking of Pletcher, there are now rumblings about his super filly Rags to Riches possibly thinking Derby as well, even though her co-owner Michael Tabor has full ownership of Circular Quay and Grapelli and part ownership in Ravel and Scat Daddy. Talk about an embarrassment of riches. But when a horse is as impressive as Rags to Riches, who crushed her opponents in Sunday’s Santa Anita Oaks (gr. I), one has a tendency to start looking past the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I), not that there’s anything wrong with winning the Oaks and Derby in the same year. She could show up against the colts in her next start to see how she fares against the opposite sex before a decision is made where to run on Derby/Oaks weekend. If she does, it’s a good bet one of Pletcher’s boys will be there to greet her. But this filly does look special.

Getting back to the Gotham, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin was happy with Wafi City’s performance in his first two-turn race, especially after he broke awkwardly from the outside post, and is also considering the Wood. As for the even-money favorite, Summer Doldrums, trainer Rick Violette feared a bounce off his big win in the Whirlaway and his fears were realized, as the colt came up empty in the stretch, finishing third, a head behind Wafi City. Summer Doldrums also returned with what Violette described as “cottage cheese crud in his lungs,” more commonly known as mucus in the lungs. He now feels the colt is ready to bounce back with a big effort in the Wood.

And returning to the Louisiana Derby, credit must be given to runner-up Ketchikan, who was making his stakes debut in his fourth career start. Despite never having been on the lead until inside the eighth pole, he dragged jockey Larry Melancon to the front nearing the backstretch. He then took the field on a merry chase, while setting solid fractions, and beat everyone but the winner, battling all the way to the wire and finishing three lengths ahead of highly regard Zanjero. A return to his old style of running could make him a legitimate Derby contender.

The others appeared to have no excuse, with the big disappointment being Hollywood Futurity (gr. I) and Sham (gr. III) runner-up Liquidity, who stalked Ketchikan before fading to sixth. O’Neill told Sirius radio’s “At the Races and Beyond” that he takes the blame for getting too overconfident and not having him fit enough for the race. He said he’ll regroup and train the colt harder for the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I). With Liquidity going in the Santa Anita Derby, it seems likely that Great Hunter, having won the Breeders’ Futurity, will return to Keeneland’s Polytrack for the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I).

The other Derby prep over the weekend was the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) at Bay Meadows, and once again it was Bwana Bull who got the job done, although he had to work a lot harder for this one than he did in the California Derby. The Bill Currin-trained Freesgood, who had made his mark in Cal-bred races, looked home free in midstretch, but Bwana Bull, under Russell Baze, kept coming at him, slowly inching closer with each stride. It wasn’t until the shadow of the wire that he was able to run him down, winning by a length in a solid 1:43 1/5.

Looking ahead

Next weekend’s stakes will be highlighted by the long-awaited return of 2-year-old champ Street Sense, who squares off against Any Given Saturday in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III), in what will be the most intriguing head-to-head confrontation of the year so far.

Saturday’s Rebel Stakes (gr. III) and San Felipe (gr. II) will profile three of the Derby trail’s young bucks who are trying to play catch-up and will be relying on their blazing speed and brilliance to make a giant leap into Derby contention. Two of them – Curlin (with only one career start) and Flying First Class (with two) – are coming off spectacular maiden victories, while San Felipe hopeful Cobalt Blue won a six-furlong allowance race in 1:09 flat in his third career start.

The Rebel also is likely to draw Teuflesberg and Officer Rocket, the one-two finishers in the Southwest Stakes, and possibly the third-place finisher Forty Grams.