It is rare the winding path that leads to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) gets too trampled upon without the barn of seven-time Eclipse Award winner Todd Pletcher stealing some focus along the way.
Like a train arriving on schedule, another late-blooming Toddler has emerged to make his presence known just before crunch time.
One month after stablemate One Liner made a splash on the Triple Crown trail over the Oaklawn Park track, fellow Pletcher trainee Malagacy gave his future Hall of Fame conditioner another legitimate sophomore to point toward the first Saturday in May when he captured the $900,000 Rebel Stakes (G2) by two lengths over Sonneteer at the Hot Springs oval March 18.
Pletcher may not have come into 2017 with any of the perceived leaders of the 3-year-old male class, but as is typical for his dominant operation, it hasn't taken him long to get some still-developing talents to step forward at just the right moments.
Sumaya U.S. Stable's Malagacy is one such horse. Unraced at 2, the son of Shackleford didn't debut until Jan. 4, when he blew the doors off Gulfstream Park with a 15-length win going 5 1/2 furlongs on the main track. Eight days before One Liner took the Southwest Stakes (G3) at Oaklawn, Malagacy was giving his own sign of what was to come when he won a 6 1/2-furlong allowance test at Gulfstream by seven lengths.
"He was so impressive in his first two starts that (sending him to the Rebel) wasn't a question of talent," said Pletcher, who also conditions Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby (G2) winner Tapwrit. "It was just a question of handling different things and one of those was shipping from his Florida base to Hot Springs, and he handled that well. Of course, the other questions were stretching out around two turns and stepping up into graded stakes company.
"We were very confident in the way the horse was training. He had been training very well. He had shown us in his breezes that the added distance wouldn't be an issue, but we just don't know until they do it. There's some stamina in his pedigree, but he's also a very quick and a very fast horse."
The 1 1/16-mile Rebel was Malagacy's first two-turn test and first try against graded company. The chestnut colt shrugged off both challenges Saturday, rating in second with Royal Mo to his outside, as pacesetter Uncontested cut an opening quarter in :23.03 and a half-mile in :47.04.
As the 11-horse field reached the far turn, Malagacy advanced outside to eyeball Uncontested, while 8-5 favorite American Anthem was trying futilely to get into gear. With jockey Javier Castellano keeping him to task late, Malagacy edged clear in mid-stretch to stop the teletimer in 1:43 as 112-1 longshot and maiden Sonneteer won a tight battle for runner-up honors.
"He doesn't do anything wrong, very impressive the way he did it today. I rode with a lot of confidence," Castellano said.
Silver Dust completed the top five, while American Anthem, who was aiming to give trainer Bob Baffert his seventh win in the Rebel, faded to tenth.
"(He) slipped really bad leaving there in behind and stayed that way the whole race," said Mike Smith, jockey of American Anthem. "(He) just struggled for whatever reason. I was OK as long as we were all slow. As soon as we had to pick it up ... his head, legs just went everywhere."
Bred by John Trumbulovic and purchased by agent Steve Young for $190,000 at the 2016 Fasig-Tipton Midlantic 2-year-olds in training sale, Malagacy is unbeaten in three starts with $586,800 in earnings. He earned 50 qualifying points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard to put him fourth in the standings.
"The (grade 1) Arkansas Derby would be the logical next step," Pletcher said. "We'll bring him home tomorrow to Palm Beach Downs and see how he bounces out of it. The Arkansas Derby timing-wise would be good, and getting a mile-and-an-eighth race under his belt would also be beneficial. That would be 'Plan A,' but in this business we all know that sometimes you have to call some audibles. Right now that's what the thinking is."