Bluegrass Cat weighs in with Davis win.

Bluegrass Cat weighs in with Davis win.

Tampa Bay Downs

Kentucky Derby Trail: Cat and Cotton Tales

So far, Todd Pletcher has been probing the enemy forces with his second- and third-stringers, with and without success. But this week it was time to get serious and bring out the heavy ammo. He hit his target with Bluegrass Cat on Saturday and now gets ready to fire off his second round with High Cotton on Wednesday.

Bluegrass Cat had exactly the kind of first race back you want to see, winning the Sam F. Davis Stakes by 1 1/4 lengths. Over a quirky surface that some horses don't take to, he was in complete control every step of the way, did everything perfectly in the stretch, and was under only a hand ride by John Velazquez, coming home his final sixteenth in a sharp :06 2/5.

Some may question his effort, in which he defeated the longest priced horse in the field -- 63-1 shot Deputy Glitters. But this was far from his best performance, which is the way it's supposed to be first time out. And Deputy Glitters is a better horse than his odds indicated. He was put in a $65,000 maiden claiming race in his career debut at Saratoga and destroyed his field by nearly 14 lengths in 1:10 4/5. That prompted owner Joseph LaCombe, of Favorite Trick fame, to switch trainers, and he sent him to Tom Albertrani. As misplaced as the colt was in his first start, he was even more misplaced in his second start, the Champagne Stakes (gr. I), in which finished way up the track over a sloppy surface he did not handle at all.

In his next two races, he resented being stuck in between horses and took himself out of the race, although he did regroup to finish fifth of 12 behind Barbican in the second of the two races. With instructions to keep him in the clear in the Sam Davis, Jose Lezcano rode him the way he wants to be ridden and he responded with a gutsy second-place finish.

Both horses could come back for the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III), although that race is also an option for Pletcher's undefeated Hutcheson (gr. III) winner Keyed Entry. Pletcher most likely needs to get two more races into Bluegrass Cat, so it would seem the Florida Derby (gr. I) is out of the picture.

The bottom line is: Bluegrass Cat has won four in a row; he can run on or off the pace; he's a bulldog who loves a good battle; and he's already won at 1 1/8 miles. That certainly places him among the top three Derby contenders in the country.

Three proven under-the-radar colts may be ready to soar

With the Las Vegas and Reno race books as a whole becoming soft by resorting to having a mutuel field, like the Future Wager, it will be difficult for Derby future book players to get a decent price on "live" horses. If you like up-and-comers such as Corinthian, Jazil, Point Determined, Steppenwolfer, Latent Heat, and Racketeer, just to name a few, you'll have to be content with 9/5. With the prominent names quoted so low they're all pretty much unplayable, the race books apparently have made self-preservation their main objective and have left the bettors with little action.

With that said, there are three horses with proven class in stakes competition at 2 that are still playable, at least to some degree.

The aforementioned High Cotton is one of them at around 35-1 at most places, although you could have gotten him at 62-1 in the first Future Wager. The son of Dixie Union will be facing some exciting newcomers in a one-mile allowance race Wednesday, and although he has a big advantage in experience and proven class, some of them look talented enough to give him a good test first time out. A victory or a big second-place finish behind some budding phenom like Strong Contender would put him right up there on the list of contenders, based on his game runner-up performances in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II), behind Private Vow, and the Iroquois Stakes (gr. III).

He's had some bad posts and bad trips, and we really don't know what kind of running style he's comfortable with. What we do know is that he showed a lot of grit winning his maiden race and was actually coming back again at the finish in his last two starts. So, all he has to do now is put himself in a position where he can get a good off-the-pace trip and show what he can do.

At odds of about 30-1 you can get a piece of Superfly, a much faster version of his full-brother, dual stakes winner and Belmont (gr. I) runner-up Andromeda's Hero. Granted, these are poor odds, but they're better than the Future Wager mutuel field. The son of Fusaichi Pegasus  finished second to Discreet Cat, arguably the most impressive maiden winner seen last year, in a blazing 1:09 3/5 at Saratoga. He then broke his maiden in a small one-mile stakes at Delaware Park, skipping along on the lead the whole way.

In the Champagne, run over a sealed sloppy track, he sat right off scorching fractions of :21 3/5 and :43 3/5, then dropped back so quickly and so far, he looked like a sure thing to finish last. But he gathered himself back up and found his best stride, rallying to finish third. Although he was beaten a dozen lengths, he still turned a disastrous race into a solid performance. His final start of the year came in the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I). Racing 13th early in the 14-horse field, he made up ground steadily throughout , and even though he was no match for Stevie Wonderboy, Henny Hughes, and First Samurai, he still finished a respectable fifth, a nose behind Brother Derek.

In his debut this year, a seven-furlong allowance race, he drew the rail on a sloppy track. Not only do you not want the rail going seven furlongs, but the inside was the worst place to be on this day. He charged up to challenge the quick Go Bucky Go through fractions of :22 and :44 2/5. After battling head and head, he tired, but never gave up, holding on to finish second, beaten three lengths in 1:22 1/5.

It's true he's won only one of six starts, and it's unclear just how he wants to run, but with his pedigree and his natural speed, one would have to think that he will be able to use that speed more effectively at longer distances. He turned in a sharp half-mile work in :47 1/5 last week.

Finally, we come to A.P. Warrior, a $1.3 million yearling who was considered a budding star last year when he finished a fast-closing second to Brother Derek in the Norfolk Stakes (gr. II), beaten three-quarters of a length, and then ran off and hid from Bob and John and Da Stoops in a one-mile allowance race, drawing off to a four-length score. But in his next two starts, the Hollywood Futurity (gr. I) and El Camino Real Derby (gr. III), he simply didn't show up, finishing a dull fourth each time. That was enough for his future book odds to climb to 60-1.

But in those last two races, his new jockeys, Garret Gomez and Alex Solis, put a stranglehold on him, especially in the El Camino Real when he spent his energy fighting Solis' restraint. Both times, when he finally was let go he appeared to either sulk or had lost interest by then. Trainer Eoin Harty, hoping to get Pat Valenzuela back on him for the March 4 Santa Catalina (gr. II), put blinkers on for a work and was happy with what he saw.

A few days later, however, owner Stan Fulton took the colt away from Harty and sent him to John Shirreffs, who won last year's Kentucky Derby (gr. I) with Giacomo. Shirreffs tries to avoid using blinkers whenever he can, and he will not put them on for A.P. Warrior's next start, which now will be the San Felipe (gr. II) March 18. Shirreffs, who planned to breeze the horse Tuesday, said he wants more time to get to know him, but commented on how much class the colt has and how cool he remains going to the track.

Whether or not he returns to his old form we obviously won't know until March 18, but if he does, and his talent comes through again, that 60-1 will quickly plummet.

A new Contender on the scene?

As mentioned earlier, High Cotton's main threat could be the John Ward-trained Strong Contender, who looked super breaking maiden last year at Arlington, blowing by his opponents on the far turn while going six-wide before drawing off to win by 3 3/4 lengths in 1:10 3/5. The son of Maria's Mon has turned in three bullet works at Gulfstream and looks to be sitting on a big race. But he'll have to overcome his lack of experience.

Also entered were Storm Treasure, a Steve Asmussen-trained son of Storm Boot who hasn't run since breaking his maiden in his third start by 7 1/4 lengths going a mile at Churchill Downs; Roamin Murphy, who won his only start by 6 3/4 lengths at Gulfstream for Tim Ritchey; Big Lover, a seasoned veteran who was second in two stakes at Calder last year and fourth in the Aventura Stakes; and Ice N Lemon, another from the Nick Zito barn who finished third behind Barbican in a one-mile allowance race.

Baffert making his Point

Bob Baffert, looking for additional Derby horses to accompany Bob and John to Louisville, could have them in his two sons of Point Given, Point Determined and Point of Impact, both of whom won last week. One or both of these talented colts would make the Run for the Roses even more memorable this year if they were to march to the post carrying the silks of the late Bob Lewis.

Point Determined is farther advanced, having won an allowance/optional claimer at Golden Gate Friday. Although he was up against a weak field, he still was able to assert himself, edging clear in the final furlong to win by 1 1/2 lengths in 1:36. He is still maturing, and it's just a question whether we'll see anything close to the finished product on the first Saturday in May. It's now time for him to do some serious running so we'll know just where he stands against top-class competition.

Point of Impact is even more of a work in progress than his stablemate. After blowing the first turn in his previous start and finishing fourth, he handled the turn perfectly in a 1 1/16-mile maiden race Thursday, although he still lost ground going four wide. He made a strong run on the far turn and had only stablemate Three Points, another son of Point Given, to beat. Despite lugging in and not getting his lead changes straight, he still was able to win by a length in 1:44 2/5 for the 1 1/16 miles. Like Point Determined, the talent is there, but he has a good deal of maturing to do, and fast, if he's going to be considered a Derby horse. Baffert likely won't throw him to the wolves just yet and will give him every chance to develop into the horse he thinks he is.

In other Derby news:

-- An allowance race at Santa Anita last week and one at Oaklawn Park this week both failed to fill, which altered the plans of two highly promising 3-year-olds, Latent Heat and Music School, both of whom were scheduled to run in the respective races. Music School will now run in the rescheduled Southwest Stakes on Saturday. Latent Heat's race was rescheduled for this Thursday, but Frankel passed this time, having missed some training due to a wet track. As a result, the race didn't fill again, leaving promising colts, Really Indian and Refinery, and two others hoping to get a fifth when the race is drawn once again on Wednesday for Friday. Frankel said he could breeze the colt Tuesday and enter, but seemed inclined at this point to wait for the Santa Catalina, which is going to come up very light other than Brother Derek. Frankel also has Racketeer, who is a possibility for the Santa Catalina.

Keep a close eye on Racketeer, who is coming off a fast-run 6-furlong maiden victory, defeating Record and Arson Squad, both of whom came back with impressive victories in fast time. What is important to note is that Racketeer is bred to go long, being by Awesome Again  out of a Skip Trial mare. So, Frankel has two days to think it over and decide on a plan of action.

-- Eoin Harty said Barbican, who was forced to miss the Southwest Stakes due to a throat problem, will point for either the Tampa Bay Derby, Rebel Stakes (gr. III) or Gotham (gr. III), all on March 18. Those three races are also under consideration for Keyed Entry and Maryland sensation Sweetnorthernsaint. A Sweetnorthernsaint – Achilles of Troy matchup would make the Gotham an exciting race.

-- Well Said, an improving son of Aptitude, scored his second straight victory over the Neil Howard-trained Brilliant in an allowance race at Oaklawn Park Thursday. Brilliant got hit from behind early in the race, suffering a gash that needed six stitches. Jolted and Jostled, another highly regarded colt, had to go wide on the first turn and then flipped his palate. He'll get an equipment change and definitely deserves another shot.

-- Aventura winner Doctor Decherd recently worked at Sunland Park, indicating his next start will be the Borderland Derby Feb. 26.

-- At Aqueduct on Saturday, Dontfearthereaper, trained by Rick Dutrow, won his career debut, running the six furlongs only two-fifths slower than the Fred "Cappy" Capossela Stakes, won by Like Now, later on the card. The son of Stormin Fever has a ton of stamina in his female family and could be heard from come Belmont time.