LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Trainer Todd Pletcher was cool yesterday, refusing to show too much emotion when a one-two finish by his entries in the Grade I, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland assured him of at least one runner in the Kentucky Derby.
"Sometimes," he said, "being under the radar might not be a bad thing. I've had horses with success in January, February and March and not had much in May. Maybe this will be the better approach."
Monba, a roan son of Maria's Mon, came from fourth to run down stablemate Cowboy Cal and win by a neck at the wire. Monba completed the 1 1/8 -mile course in 1:49.71. The lightly regarded Kentucky Bear finished third, another length back.
Monba, ridden by Edgar Prado, paid $19.60, $8.60 and $6.60 as a 9-1 shot.
The victory will put $465,000 in graded-stakes earnings into Monba's qualifying account for a total of $515,000, stamping his ticket for the Derby on May 3. The $150,000 for Cowboy Cal increases his graded-stakes loot to $207,660 and momentarily pushes him up to 18th in earnings. The top 20 horses in graded earnings make the Derby field.
The $1 million, Grade II Arkansas Derby further complicated the math yesterday, with Gayego winning the $600,000 first prize and Z Fortune adding $200,000 in second-place money to assure both spots in Louisville.
But the Grade II Lexington Stakes on Saturday could push horses tightly bunched in earnings from 16th through 20th down and possibly out of the picture.
While Pletcher was glad to become only the second trainer in the 84-year history of the Blue Grass to field the first- and second-place finishers, the results left several trainers and jockeys perplexed.
Trainer Nick Zito said horses "ran to their pedigree," pointing out that his trainee, Cool Coal Man (by Mineshaft), didn't like the synthetic surface, but that Stevil, like Monba a son of Maria's Mon and an afterthought among bettors, finished fourth.
"That's the way it is," Zito said.
Pyro, who went into the race as the even-money favorite, finished 10th. He, second betting choice Cool Coal Man, Big Truck and Visionaire all had been expected to be forwardly placed but never got going.
"I know what my horse is capable of, and he didn't give it to me today," Pyro's jockey, Shaun Bridgmohan, said. "I asked him for run around the turn to try and set myself up pretty good, and I didn't get the response I was hoping for. ... He's usually a pretty handy horse and today he wasn't."
It was Pyro's first race on a synthetic surface, as it was for Cool Coal Man, Big Truck and Visionaire.
Trainer Barclay Tagg's initial reaction to Big Truck's 11th-place finish was disbelief.
"He liked the track when he was training on it, but he didn't like it today," Tagg said. "I didn't expect him to run that bad."
Trainer Michael Matz took a positive view after the race, pointing out that Visionaire was moving forward at the finish.
"It was almost like the horse knew he was too far back," Matz said, referring to the outside 12 post that put Visionaire at a disadvantage from the start. "Considering where he was at the quarter pole [12th], to finish like he did [fifth] ... this could turn out to be a good prep."