Todd Pletcher, whose bench is stronger than most other trainers' first string, sends out the first team on Saturday, when he'll saddle Bluegrass Cat in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III) and Keyed Entry in the Gotham Stakes (gr. III).
It's not typical for a trainer to send out two of the top 3-year-olds in the country in grade III preps in mid-March as a major steppingstone to the May 6 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). But for Pletcher, the timing of the Tampa Bay Derby and Gotham was perfect for both colts, especially Keyed Entry, who will be making his all-important debut going two turns.
"We've sort of been committed to the Tampa program for a while with Bluegrass Cat," Pletcher said Tuesday on a national teleconference about the WinStar Farm runner. "And obviously when he ran well in the Sam Davis it was logical to bring him back in the Tampa Bay Derby. The scheduling is good, being a month apart, so that part of it was easy.
"With Keyed Entry (by Honor and Glory), there was a little more thinking involved in deciding on the Gotham. After he ran so well in the Hutcheson (gr. II) and ran so fast. I felt it was important to give him a little extra time to his next start. So, we decided on the March 18 races at that time, rather than try to go a mile and an eighth in the Fountain of Youth (gr. II). The Gotham made the most sense. We're already set up there with a stable based at Belmont year-round. The horses we have up there are running well over the inner track and they're coming back in good shape. The forecast didn't look too bad, and we didn't have to worry about rain, because this horse handles an off track so well."
Pletcher said he realized that a jockey conflict would be created by running both horses on the same day, and acknowledged that it was a tough decision for John Velazquez and agent Angel Cordero Jr., who chose to ride Bluegrass Cat.
"Anytime we get in these big races, it's ultimately their decision, and on this particular occasion is was a very hard decision, and not one Johnny or Angel wanted to make this early on in the season," Pletcher said. "Dating back as far as the Remsen (gr. II), they thought Bluegrass Cat was a potential Derby horse, and at that time, Keyed Entry had only one start at Monmouth, and Johnny didn't even ride him. So, Bluegrass Cat has been on their radar screen from the beginning and he's already run well at Tampa and has already been a mile and an eighth.
"So, as much as they didn't want to have to make it, they decided to go with Bluegrass Cat this time around, and hopefully, if things worked out down the road, they might have an opportunity to get back on Keyed Entry."
In comparing both horses, Pletcher said what he likes best about them is that they're seven-for seven since joining his barn.
"They like to win, and that's obviously the most important thing," Pletcher said. "Keyed Entry is an exceptionally gifted horse. He's got loads of speed and he's very willing. He's done everything we've asked to do so far. Bluegrass Cat is a tremendous mover and very athletic. I loved his race in the Nashua (gr. III) as much as any of them because it was only his third lifetime start, coming out of a maiden race into a graded stakes, and he was stuck down on the inside of horses. He pushed his way through and showed me he's got some of that Storm Cat
fighter mentality to him."
Pletcher said he has no concerns at all about Keyed Entry's ability to handle two turns. "I have no question in my mind he's going to handle a mile and a sixteenth," he said. "He's an awfully good horse, and as fast as he ran in the Hutcheson, he can coast another sixteenth of a mile. The key will be whether he can relax and get the mile and an eighth or a mile and a quarter against the top colts around.
"We're trying to stretch him out with May 6 in mind. We're not really concerned with him getting a mile and a sixteenth. We've been trying to slow him down a little, getting him to go off a little slower in his works. He's a pretty forward horse, but so was Smarty Jones, so he just has to relax enough to make his speed dangerous and keep carrying it."
Keyed Entry races for Starlight Stable, Paul Saylor, and Donald Lucarelli.
Pletcher chose the Tampa route for Bluegrass Cat to avoid having to run him at either 7 1/2 furlongs or a mile and eighth first time back. "With no racing at Fair Grounds, it took one option away from us," he said. "Running him on February 18, March 18, and possibly April 15 became an attractive scenario, so we felt Tampa was the best way to go. The surface there has had a reputation for being quirky, because it's a sand-based track, but I find it's tighter this year, and they've broken several records."
Pletcher said that My Golden Song, third in the Aventura and Holy Bull (gr. III) and fourth in the Fountain of Youth (gr. II) likely will make his next start in the Illinois Derby (gr. II) and will be equipped with blinkers. Sunriver, an allowance winner on Fountain of Youth day, likely will remain in Florida and point for the Florida Derby (gr. I), while High Cotton, second in the Kentucky Jockey Club (gr. II) and Iroquois (gr. III) last year, will run next in the Rushaway Stakes at Turfway Park. Tahoe Warrior, who has found a home on the grass, may return to the dirt in the Lane's End Stakes (gr. II) the same day.