Back in July, before the Saratoga meet began, Todd Pletcher said his 2-year-olds were slow to come to hand. Seven months later, Pletcher rethought his assessment.
"Maybe, slower to come to hand wasn't the right way to say it, maybe just slower," Pletcher said last week, the day he entered Destin and Gettysburg in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis as Tampa Bay Downs.
At least one of those improved the situation.
Twin Creeks Racing Stable's Destin, a full-brother to Grade 1 stakes winner Creative Cause, won the Davis while Gettysburg finished fifth as the favorite. Ridden by John Velazquez, Destin settled in fourth in the field of six, before sweeping to a 2 1/4-length win over Rafting and Morning Fire.
"I think he has potential, but he's taken a little while to come to hand," Pletcher said before the Davis.
Pletcher knows he has yet to book a ticket to the Kentucky Derby but, like always, has some bullets still to fire, with the likes of undefeated Zulu, Destin and maiden winner Rally Cry.
"Hopefully they're going in the right direction," Pletcher said. "We've got Zulu pointing in the direction of the Fountain of Youth off his two wins, maybe Rally Cry going to the Gotham, we need them to keep stepping forward, they're fringe players at the moment but they could jump into the mix with good efforts in their next starts."
Pletcher, consistently the most dominant trainer of 2-year-olds, can't put his finger on why the class of 2015 hasn't risen to the top.
"It's just one of those things, we didn't do anything differently, but we could tell back in June, July, that we didn't have those who were ready to really jump up and have a lot to say at that time of year," Pletcher said. "We missed in a lot of spots in the OBS March sale, we were underbidders on a bunch, some little things like that you could say, maybe that's why. A lot of it you can't control, you go to a sale, you underbid on a few, a few get away, a few hiccups along the way, some of them get sidelined. You know, you can only train what you have, for some reason, we apparently didn't do a good enough job at getting the draft choices."
Without a runner in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in November - like a strip mall without a Starbucks - Pletcher regrouped and hoped for the best when he arrived at his winter base. Things have, at least, improved.
"I certainly feel better after we got down to Palm Beach Downs and some of them started to come around, we started to see some improved efforts form ones who had a start," Pletcher said. "Zulu has been promising, there's reason for hope, but we'll see, we need to step up. I've said it before, sometimes, you can feel loaded in January and February and it'll all fall apart on you. I've been on both sides of it."
Zulu could certainly put Pletcher back in the center light with a strong effort in the Feb. 27 Fountain of Youth. Purchased for $900,000 by Stonestreet Stable, Susan Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith at Fasig-Tipton Florida March sale of 2-year-olds in training, the son of Bernardini won his debut in December and came back to dominate an allowance field in January at Gulfstream Park.
Asked who Zulu reminded him of, Pletcher didn't hesitate, mentioning Travers winner Stay Thirsty, another son of Bernardini.
"It's not so much this stage, because Stay Thirsty had already run in the Breeders' Cup, finished second in the Hopeful, but physically he's very much like Stay Thirsty," Pletcher said. "He's got the same size, same balance, same look to him."
Pletcher might not be loaded in the 3-year-old division, but he's definitely got the New Zealand-bred, Mongolian-raced, aiming-at-Dubai division covered.
Mongolian Prince, bred in New Zealand and owned by the Inner Mongolian Rider Horse Industry Group, arrived at Palm Beach Downs this winter and has posted four official breezes. Pletcher is impressed so far.
"We've breezed him a couple of three-eighths, a couple of halves, he's pretty fit, he's worked well, so far he's worked as well as his entrymates," Pletcher said last week. "So far, he's handled everything pretty well. We'll step him up and challenge him a little bit, see what we've got but so far he's handled everything all right."
According to the New Zealand Racing Desk, the son of multiple Grade 1 winner St Reims has won three of five starts, including two stakes, during his 3-year-old season in China, including a 21-length score going 1 1/4 miles at Wuhan. None of those victories register officially in America, so look for him in a maiden at Gulfstream Park.
"He's bred in New Zealand, so he's Southern Hemisphere 3. If we get a race into him in a proper amount of time, maybe taking him to the UAE Derby would be a possibility, but a lot of moving parts have to happen before that happens. We're keeping an eye on that," Pletcher said. "He's settled in, big, nice-looking horse, trains good, we'll see, it'll be interesting."
- Kiaran McLaughlin kept his stable's momentum rolling with "a great, great day" Saturday that saw a one-two sweep in Laurel Park's Grade 2 Barbara Fritchie with Dancing House and Clothes Fall Off and a victory in Gulfstream's Grade 2 Royal Delta with Penwith.
The victories were worth a collective $364,000 and moved McLaughlin's North American purse total for the season to $922,991. Adding the $150,000 Frosted earned winning the Group 2 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 earlier this month, McLaughlin's season total is well into seven figures.
Penwith added the Royal Delta to an earlier victory in a 1-mile allowance-optional at Gulfstream. The 5-year-old daughter of Bernardini was multiple Grade 2 placed before winning the Royal Delta.
The Fritchie was also Dancing House's first graded stakes score. The 5-year-old Tapit mare was third in the Grade 1 Spinaway as a 2-year-old in 2013 and second in her most recent race in the Jan. 9 Interborough Stakes at Aqueduct.
- Two key Kentucky Derby preps are slated for Monday - the Grade 2 San Vincente featuring Nyquist at Santa Anita Park and the Grade 3 Southwest at Oaklawn Park. A possible classics contender emerged Saturday at Golden Gate Fields in Frank Conversation, winner of Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby. The son of Quality Road, who like Nyquist is trained by Doug O'Neill and owned by Reddam Racing, picked up 10 points for the Derby and at least earned a trip to Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky for the chance to get more in the Grade 3 Spiral April 2.
- Options are a great thing and the connections of Bolo are fortunate to have a few after the Temple City colt won Saturday's Grade 2 Arcadia Stakes on the grass at Santa Anita.
The Arcadia was Bolo's second career stakes win on the turf - along with the Eddie Logan as a 2-year-old - but he's plenty versatile and finished third in last year's Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby to earn a trip to the Kentucky Derby. He didn't fare well in Louisville, finishing 12th and 12 3/4 lengths behind American Pharoah in the Derby, but his connections aren't giving up on major stakes on the main track just yet.
Keith Brackpool, representing the Golden Pegasus Racing Inc. group that owns Bolo in partnership with Earle Mack, said the colt could return in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap next month.