Bandini reasserts himself with Blue Grass romp.

Bandini reasserts himself with Blue Grass romp.

Anne M. Eberhardt

The Great Bandini Emerges in Blue Grass

The Todd Pletcher-trained Bandini stepped into the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) spotlight with a brilliant performance in the $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) at Keeneland Saturday.

Ridden by John Velazquez, the long-striding 3-year-old son of Fusaichi Pegasus  handled a three-wide trip with ease. He shook loose of High Limit at the eighth pole and stormed to a convincing six-length victory in a slow time of 1:50 for the 1 1/8-mile stepping stone to the May 7 Derby. Closing Argument finished third.

It was the first graded stakes win for Bandini, who missed the Florida Derby (gr. I) with a foot bruise after a game runner-up showing in the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth (gr. II) March 5, when the dark bay rallied impressively while finishing three-quarters of a length behind High Fly.

Before a record crowd of 33,621, Bandini delivered a huge effort when it was needed most. Pletcher, who led all trainers with 34 nominees to the Triple Crown races, was in danger of missing the Derby unless Bandini boosted his graded stakes earnings. The victory was worth $465,000 and moves Bandini into the top 10 money earners among potential Derby starters.

The victory was a sweet one for Pletcher, who won his first Blue Grass, which has produced 22 Derby winners. It may be an indication that Bandini can end Pletcher's 0-for-9 Derby record.

Pletcher said the layoff didn't hurt Bandini.

"With all the trouble we had, I was still quietly confident," Pletcher said. "I wasn't concerned about his fitness. I was more concerned about the outside post. He we more focused today. He was all business and it showed in the race."

Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith own the lightly-raced Bandini, and they also own the pacesetter in the Blue Grass, Spanish Chestnut, who wilted in the stretch after setting solid fractions of :23 2/5, :46 3/5 and 1:10 2/5.

High Limit, who had led at every call of his three previous starts, found himself in second on the outside for Ramon Dominguez. High Limit, the slight 5-2 Blue Grass favorite as the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) victor March 12, inherited the lead from Spanish Chestnut but wasn't up to holding off Bandini. He was a clear second by three lengths after brushing the rail in the stretch run.

"He ran much better today than he did in the Fountain of Youth," Velazquez said of Bandini. "He learns from every race and this experience will teach him even more. He is much more focused now. I was more aggressive with him today. I asked him to picked it up more from the half-mile pole today and after that, he went right on."

Consolidator, the San Felipe (gr. II) winner in his last start, and Sun King chased the pace early but were never involved. Sun King, who captured the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III) impressively a month ago, finished fourth.

Trainer Nick Zito, who has been on a remarkable Triple Crown roll this season, had no excuses for Sun King.

"The track was good for him," Zito said. "Nothing went right for him today. We salute the winner and in the next three weeks maybe he'll get better. We didn't get the race. That's all you can do."

Sun King, who lost for the first time this year after two victories, still is headed to the Derby and could be one of five starters for Zito. Also headed to the Derby are trainer Bobby Frankel's High Limit and trainer D. Wayne Lukas' Consolidator.

Bandini, a $500,000 Keeneland yearling buy in 2003 who has won three of five career starts, paid $8, $3.80, and $3.20. High Limit returned $4.20 and $3.20. Closing Argument, who had not been to the post since winning the Holy Bull (gr. III) Feb. 5, was $4.40 to show with Cornelio Velasquez in the saddle.

Consolidator, Spanish Chestnut and Mr Sword followed Sun King.

(Chart, Equibase)