As if he didn't have enough of a foothold in the current Kentucky Derby landscape, trainer Todd Pletcher keeps going down his bench to add to his total on the scoreboard.
Pletcher already has five horses qualified to make the 20-horse field for the Kentucky Derby, but that doesn't mean the future Hall of Famer is going to cut anyone a break two weeks out from the first Saturday in May.
Winning Cause gave Pletcher a potential six-pack to digest when he captured the Grade III, $200,000 Coolmore Lexington Stakes — and the resulting 20 first-place points toward a berth in the first leg of the Triple Crown — by a length before a crowd of 32,325 at Keeneland on Saturday.
Owned by New Mexico-based Gil Moutray, Winning Cause — a son of Coolmore stallion Giant's Causeway — now sits 21st on the Kentucky Derby leader board with fellow Pletcher trainee Charming Kitten in the 20th spot by virtue of the tiebreaker (nonrestricted stakes earnings).
With Super Ninety Nine (18th) and Falling Sky (19th) not fully committed to the Derby field, the door is slightly ajar for Pletcher to wheel Winning Cause back for a classic try should the opportunity present itself.
"I guess you can never have too many, but we never really talked about (the Derby) with this colt," said Pletcher, who has now won the Lexington five times. "We weren't thinking of this as a Derby prep but he's got 20 points now so we won't rule anything out.
"I think everybody gets Derby fever that I've been around. But, honestly, it never really came up before today. I'm sure it might tonight or tomorrow. We'll play it by ear and see how he comes out."
With Winning Cause having notched both of his prior two wins at Keeneland, including a victory going 7 furlongs on April 6, Pletcher figured the 11⁄16-mile Lexington would at least be an ideal spot to see where the chestnut colt's progress level was.
Off the board in two previous outings going 11⁄16 miles, Winning Cause was forwardly placed in fifth after breaking from the rail as River Rocks led the backstretch march through fractions of :23.76 and :47.66.
"I think he's just a better horse now than he was (his previous two tries stretching out)," Pletcher said. "He's physically doing well, he's mentally matured a bit. But since all three of his wins are at Keeneland, it's hard to say if he's a synthetic horse or if he's just getting better."
With half of the 10-horse field starting to bunch up, jockey Julien Leparoux moved 6-1 shot Winning Cause out four wide on the final turn and reeled in Cerro, who had moved up to take a half-length advantage.
"I rode him last time and I got to know him, so I was very confident that when I got busy on him that he was going to run for me," Leparoux said.
General Election rallied after sitting last early on to get second with Pick of the Litter a neck back in third.
As Winning Cause hit the wire in 1:43.93 to put himself in the potential Derby discussion, Grade I-winning filly Pure Fun labored while finishing seventh in what was supposed to be her tightener for the Kentucky Oaks.
Trainer Ken McPeek had said conditioning, not points, was his motivation for putting Pure Fun against males in the Lexington. Should the chestnut daughter of Pure Prize come out of her second start this year in satisfactory shape, McPeek still plans to send her to the Oaks.
"We're not out of the game. I just think she needed to run," McPeek said. "I firmly believe she needed the race; she was blowing like a freight train pulling up there. I just didn't think I had horses in the barn that were going to be able to get her ready to go 11⁄8 miles.
"If she backs off the feed tub and I don't think she's right, that's another deal. She's never run on (the anti-bleeder medication) Lasix, (the Oaks) might be a good time to try it."
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.