A win in a Kentucky Derby prep race was worth $465,000.
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) -- Bandini came through with a fabulous stretch run and won the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes on Saturday, giving trainer Todd Pletcher a serious contender for the Kentucky Derby.
The long-striding Bandini stormed into the lead with three-sixteenths of a mile to go and put away more celebrated 3-year-olds High Limit, Sun King and Consolidator on a picture-perfect day at Keeneland.
In the strongest Derby prep race of the season and 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 on May 7 unless Bandini boosted his graded stakes earnings.
Did he ever. The son of 2000 Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus earned $465,000 with his victory in the Grade 1 Blue Grass, moving into the top 10 money-earners. If more than 20 horses are entered in the Derby, graded stakes earnings determine the field.
Bandini, ridden by John Velazquez, finished six lengths ahead of favorite High Limit, who lost for the first time in four starts. In winning for the third time in five career starts, Bandini covered the 11/8 miles in the relatively slow time of 1:50.16.
Closing Argument was third, followed by trainer Nick Zito's Sun King, Consolidator, Spanish Chestnut and Mr Sword.
Bandini paid $8, $3.80 and $3.20, High Limit, ridden by Ramon Dominguez, returned $4.20 and $3.20, and Closing Argument paid $4.40 to show.
Pletcher may have himself another Derby starter in Flower Alley, who finished a distant second behind Afleet Alex in Saturday's $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park.
Spanish Chestnut set the early pace in the Blue Grass, with usual front-runner High Limit settling comfortably into second and Bandini a little farther back in third. As the seven-horse field came out of the final turn, Bandini turned on the speed and took command, increasing his lead with each smooth stride to the finish line.
Zito 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.
Until the Blue Grass, Zito was on an incredible role in Derby preps. Last week, Bellamy Road won the Wood Memorial by an astounding 171/2 lengths for the trainer, and High Fly and Noble Causeway ran 1-2 in the Florida Derby on April 2.
The victory was a sweet one for Pletcher, one of the rising stars in the business looking for his first win in a Triple Crown race. Winning his first Blue Grass, which has produced 22 Derby winners, may be an indication Bandini is the one who can end Pletcher's 0-for-9 Derby record.
Bandini finished second to High Fly in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park on March 5 but missed the Florida Derby with a minor foot bruise. The layoff didn't bother 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."
Owners Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith paid $500,000 for Bandini at the Keeneland September yearling sale, and the colt boosted his career earnings to $564,180.
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