04/11/2002 12:00AM

Arkansas Derby full of late bloomers

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - The Wood Memorial and the Blue Grass Stakes may have the most talked-about 3-year-olds in their starting gates Saturday, but the Grade 2, $500,000 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn features a handful of late-developing colts who also are being pointed to Louisville on the first Saturday in May.

And because it is has attracted a wide-open field of 11, the Arkansas Derby could be the most bettable leg of the Big 3 Pick 3.

It is difficult to predict who will be favored in the Arkansas Derby. A case can be made for most of the entrants in the 1 1/8-mile race, although the wagering figures to revolve around Mr. Mellon, Private Emblem. and Windward Passage, all recent stakes winners, and It'sallinthechase, third last out to Repent in the Grade 2, $750,000 Louisiana Derby.

Mr. Mellon seems to have the whole package: class, connections, pedigree, and a versatile running style. Blossoming now, he will be making his fifth career start Saturday, and his trainer, Elliott Walden, is pleased with how rapidly the colt has developed since he began racing around two turns in February.

"He's very athletic," said Walden, who won the Arkansas Derby in 1998 with Victory Gallop.

Mr. Mellon won his first two-turn start by four lengths in an allowance at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 23. He showed his class a month later when he won the $100,000 Rushaway Stakes at Turfway Park, finishing 2 1/4 lengths clear of pacesetter Wild Horses, who also returns in the Arkansas Derby.

Mr. Mellon figures to be stalking the leaders. "He's got some tactical speed, and that should be advantageous in Arkansas," said Walden.

Private Emblem has the natural speed to get position from his outside post. He is already a two-time stakes winner, and last out won the first and faster division of the $75,000 Southwest at Oaklawn on March 2.

He has not raced since, but has worked super over the local strip, traveling seven furlongs in 1:26.20 on April 1. "We made a conscious decision to space his races considerably because we felt he ran best doing so," said Steve Asmussen, who trains Private Emblem.

The theory worked to perfection for the Southwest, which was the colt's first start since Jan. 4.

Private Emblem has never won beyond a mile, but the new dimension he showed rating in the Southwest suggests he could handle the distance Saturday. "He was off the bridle the whole way until it was time to pick it up," said Asmussen.

Asmussen will also send out Windward Passage. After finishing a troubled third in the second division of the Southwest, the colt broke through with a smart stakes win last out in the Grade 3 Rebel at Oaklawn.

The pace could be quick Saturday, which will benefit not only Windward Passage, but also It'sallinthechase, a closer who performed well against tough company this winter at Fair Grounds.

It'sallinthechase won his biggest race in the MEC Mile at Remington Park last November. This year, he made each of the races in the 3-year-old series at Fair Grounds, where he was a bang-up third in the Louisiana Derby, beaten 2 3/4 lengths by Repent at 52-1. He is trained by Willson Brown.

THE FIELD

ARKANSAS DERBY

Purse: $500,000, 1 1/8 miles, Grade 2

PPHORSEJOCKEYWTODDS

1HoldthehelmP. Valenzuela11810-1

2OutstanderM. Johnston12215-1

3Gold DollarJ. Santos11815-1

4Dusty SpikeM. Berry1228-1

5It'sallinthechaseG. Melancon12210-1

6Wild HorsesR. Douglas1188-1

7Guppie's SecretC. Borel11830-1

8Windward PassageC. McCarron1224-1

9Bay MonsterA. Lovato11820-1

10Mr. MellonL. Melancon1223-1

11Private EmblemD. Meche1229-2

Odds by Mike Watchmaker

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