04/06/2011 3:30PM

Arkansas Derby: Elite Alex, J P's Gusto look for more early speed

Barbara D. Livingston
Elite Alex will race in blinkers for the Arkansas Derby on April 16.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – Elite Alex and J P’s Gusto are horses with natural speed, but you would not have known it watching their last starts. Both raced farther off the pace than usual and as a result will add blinkers for the Arkansas Derby. Elite Alex worked in the equipment Wednesday morning at Oaklawn, when he covered six furlongs from the gate in a bullet 1:11.60.

J P’s Gusto donned the hood for his last work on March 31, and after breezing five furlongs by himself in a bullet 58.60 seconds, trainer Joe Petalino said he would add the equipment. Cliff Berry, who was aboard for the work on J P’s Gusto, will ride the horse for the first time in the Arkansas Derby, while Calvin Borel will have his regular seat aboard Elite Alex.

Borel worked Elite Alex on Wednesday, in company with Alex’s Vision, who broke on top. Elite Alex darted up the rail to join his workmate soon afterward, with Oaklawn head clocker Jim Hamilton carrying Elite Alex through fractions of 22.40 for the opening quarter; 34.80 for three furlongs; 46.40 for the half-mile; and 58.60 for five furlongs. Elite Alex galloped out seven furlongs in 1:25.60.

It was a different kind of work for the horse, who had been rating off of workmates in his drills at Oaklawn.

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“It’s the first time I wanted him to come out of there and get some speed in him,” trainer Tim Ritchey said. “He needs to be in the race this next race, somewhere. He doesn’t need to be on the front end, but he needs to be in the race. I think if he’s in the race and then he can just kick and finish, I think he’s got a good shot to be one-two, which is what we’ve got to do.”

Elite Alex needs graded stakes earnings to secure a spot in the Kentucky Derby gate if the field is oversubscribed as expected. The horse, who won a five-furlong maiden race on the front end last July, closed from 10 lengths back for third in the Grade 3 Southwest at Oaklawn in February. He then ran in the Grade 2, $1 million Louisiana Derby, and, after trailing the field by 15 lengths, closed for fourth.

J P’s Gusto raced more than five lengths off the pace in the Grade 2 Rebel last month at Oaklawn, when he finished seventh to wire-to-wire winner The Factor. Prior to that race, J P’s Gusto was a troubled second in Southwest. The horse, who was a front-running winner of last year’s Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity, is scheduled to work Sunday, Petalino said.

The Arkansas Derby is the centerpiece of the Racing Festival of the South, which begins Saturday with the Grade 2, $350,000 Oaklawn Handicap. The Oaklawn Handicap is the first of nine stakes to be run over the final six dates of the meet, with the races worth a collective $2.7 million.

HRTV will have on-site television coverage of the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap on April 15 and the Arkansas Derby. The talent will be Zoe Cadman, Jeff Siegel, and Aaron Vercruysse.

Lexington possible for Caleb’s Posse

There is an outside chance that Caleb’s Posse could pass on an intended start in the Arkansas Derby and run in the Grade 3, $200,000 Lexington at Keeneland on April 23. In his most recent start, the horse was second in the Rebel.

“We were actually talking a little bit about the Lexington because he’s won at Keeneland,” said trainer Donnie Von Hemel. “But I think it’s more likely he will run here. But we do have some back-up plans.”

Von Hemel is monitoring how the Arkansas Derby field comes together. He said Wednesday he wants to spot the horse most effectively. The Factor, who won the Rebel by more than six lengths, is expected back for the Arkansas Derby.

Sarah’s Song eyes Apple Blossom

Sarah’s Song, who was an 11-length allowance winner at Oaklawn on Apri1 1, is being considered for a start in the Apple Blossom, trainer Mac Robertson said.

“We’re thinking about it,” he said Wednesday. “If I run her back here, I’ll run her in the Apple Blossom.”

If she does not go, Robertson said Sarah’s Song would be pointed to the filly and mare route series at Delaware Park. She earned a career-high Beyer Speed Figure of 93 for her win April 1, when she covered a mile in a sharp 1:37.

◗ Zarb’s Ballerina, a four-time stakes winner who earned $495,440, has been retired and is to be bred to Summer Bird, trainer Robby Robinson said. She last raced April 1 and was third in an Oaklawn allowance. Zarb’s Ballerina, 7, raced most of her career for Robinson and his wife, Treissa.

◗ Tim Ice, who trained champion Summer Bird, will have a 25-horse division at Arlington Park for the first time this year, he said Wednesday.