Back on Track

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Todd Pletcher’s back. Did he really go anywhere? The reigning Eclipse Award-winning trainer appeared to spin off the Derby trail as the Derby preps began to wane. The Toyota Blue Grass loomed as the last tollbooth. In typical Pletcher style, he paid the toll for his car and the car behind him (and tipped the toll taker), finishing first and second in the $750,000 stakes.

Monba and Cowboy Cal are going to the Derby. Cowboy Cal and John Velazquez set the pace of the Blue Grass, with Monba and Edgar Prado joining him as they left the backside. Even-money favorite Pyro came off the bridle as soon as Shaun Bridgmohan needed him and no horses made an impact on Pletcher’s duo. Kentucky Bear, the most touted horse in the country yesterday, closed ground but lugged in at the moment he couldn’t afford and finished a strong third.

Monba won his career debut over Keeneland’s Polytrack surface last fall, then an allowance race at Churchill Downs. The son of Maria’s Mon finished fourth in the CashCall Futurity before being freshened for two months. Sent off favorite in the Fountain of Youth, he didn’t go a quarter of a mile without derailment. He wound up last, beaten nearly 40 lengths.

“I was as disappointed as you can be in a race,” Pletcher said. “I felt like we had him doing decently, where you’d want him to be for his first start of the year, maybe it wasn’t going to be his peak effort, but when they run last and get beat 30 some lengths, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.”

Pletcher wiped the board and pulled out the chalk.

“We knew right away when he came back he had a grab on the inside of his right hind quarter. We knew he had a bit of an excuse in the first turn, but it’s still a lot of ground to make up,” Pletcher said. “Edgar thought he made a bit of a noise so we did a myectomy on him four or five days afterwards but still felt like we weren’t quite there, I really didn’t feel like we were quite there until the last time we worked him on Sunday, that was the first time I had seen him work like he was ready.”

Monba threw out a 47 1/5 second half-mile breeze at Keeneland and the Blue Grass was on target. And now the Derby.

“I never thought we were off (the Derby Trail), but I knew this was the pivotal day,” Pletcher said. “These were the two that could get us there. It’s very rewarding in a lot of ways. We’ve set the barometer for us that’s so high, you hear people say, ‘You’re not having a good year.’ Well, for our standards, we’re not having a good year but by a lot of other people’s standards we’re still in the mix and hanging in there. I’ve been training for 12, 13 years, we’ve been fortunate to build a little bit better every year, but it can’t just go up in a straight line. Having grown up in the business, with my dad being a trainer, I have an understanding of that and an appreciation of that. It’s not going to go up every day.”

It went up on Blue Grass Day 2008.