Down to perhaps his last chance to return to the Derby, Pletcher is headed to Churchill Downs after Monba won the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on Saturday, and stablemate Cowboy Cal finished second.
Cowboy Cal, owned by Stonerside Stable, was trained in Aiken by Tim Jones.
The results give Pletcher two 3-year-olds on the rise and with enough prize money to run in the Derby in three weeks if more than 20 3-year-olds are entered.
Cowboy Cal and Monba ran 1-2 around the far turn over the synthetic surface Polytrack. Monba, ridden by Edgar Prado, took the lead in the stretch and won by a neck. Kentucky Bear, a 27-1 long shot was third.
Pyro, the even-money favorite, finished 10th in the 12-horse field -- the largest in 25 years.
Monba covered the 1e miles in 1:49.71 on a cloudy and unseasonably cool day, although 26,000 fans showed up.
The Blue Grass was a dash for cash -- and Monba and Cowboy Cal hit the jackpot for Pletcher. If more than 20 are entered in the Derby, preference is given to horses with the highest graded stakes earnings.
Monba came in ranked 41st and Cowboy Cal 39th. Monba earned $465,000 to move into the top 10, while Cowboy Cal collected $150,000 to move into the top 20 at $207,600.
"Both horses showed they can go on to the highest level," Pletcher, who led all trainers with 31 Triple Crown nominations, plus had three others sent to his barn. "And their pedigree shows they can run 11/4 miles."
ARKANSAS DERBY: In Hot Springs, Ark., Gayego held off hard-charging Z Fortune down the stretch to win the $1 million race that should bolster both colts' Kentucky Derby prospects.
Gayego, the 2-1 favorite, broke well early and stayed near the lead despite a quick pace. With Mike Smith aboard, Gayego was second at the half-mile mark, a half-length behind longshot Tres Borrachos. Gayego eventually took the lead and held off Z Fortune by 3/4 of a length, covering the 1e miles in 1 minute, 49.63 seconds -- slightly faster than 2007 Horse of the Year Curlin ran the race last year.
Gayego paid $6.40, $4.40 and $3.80. A $2 exacta paid $44. Tres Borrachos (38-1) was third, 43/4 lengths behind the winner.
Indian Sun was fourth, followed by My Pal Charlie and Isabull. Blackberry Road, out of Aiken's Dogwood Stable, and Golden Yank finished in a dead heat for seventh.