03/29/2007 11:00PM

Arkansas Derby gets boost from Ketchikan

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Ketchikan's connections confirmed Friday that he is headed to Oaklawn Park for the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby, one of several Racing Festival of the South stakes that are beginning to take shape.

The festival consists of nine stakes worth $2.8 million, run over the final six days of the meet. It opens on Friday with the Grade 2, $250,000 Fantasy.

The centerpiece is the Arkansas Derby on April 14. Ketchikan, the runner-up in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, is a strong addition to the Arkansas Derby lineup and could start as second choice to Curlin in the 1 1/8-mile race. Ketchikan will be ridden by Victor Espinoza, according to his trainer, Al Stall Jr.

Stall said Ketchikan's final major work for the Arkansas Derby is scheduled for April 7 at Churchill Downs. His connections had also been considering running in the Grade 1 Blue Grass at Keeneland on April 14, but have opted to come to Arkansas.

"I wanted to run him on the 14th," said Stall. "And there were only two [preps] on the 14th, the Blue Grass and the Arkansas Derby. Most likely, he's second or third choice in the Arkansas Derby, whereas in the Blue Grass, he'd be fourth or fifth choice. Simple math there."

The Arkansas Derby also has picked up Delightful Kiss. In his last start he was third to Street Sense in the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby on March 17. He will be ridden by Russell Baze, said his trainer, Pete Anderson.

Anderson said part of the appeal of the Arkansas Derby is the timing of the race, which works for the Calder-based Delightful Kiss.

"I didn't want to run that quick back in the Florida Derby, and I didn't want to hook that horse that beat me, Street Sense, at Keeneland in the Blue Grass," he said. "This is a tremendous purse."

Other early probables include Officer Rocket, who finished second to Curlin in the Grade 3 Rebel; Deadly Dealer, a seven-length allowance winner at Gulfstream for trainer Todd Pletcher; and Flying First Class, who owns the year's highest Beyer Figure for a 3-year-old, a 107.

Ermine preps for Apple Blossom

Ermine worked five furlongs in 59.91 seconds here Friday under Calvin Borel in what was her final major work for the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap next Saturday. The race will share a card with the Grade 2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap, which is expected to draw Lawyer Ron.

Ermine figures to vie for favoritism in the Apple Blossom with Round Pond, winner of the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Ermine last raced on March 10, finishing second to Balance in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita at Santa Anita. She worked before the renovation break, and galloped out six furlongs in 1:13.80. The move was the second fastest of 32 at the distance, and it was too quick for trainer Ronny Werner's liking.

"What I wanted today was 1:01, somewhere in there," Werner said. "It makes a difference on a light-made filly like that working that fast versus like a big stud colt who carries his weight good. A lot of times he can take that a little bit, bounce back quicker. One that's a little lighter, sometimes it's a little bit harder for them to bounce back and get filled back up in time."

Werner said Ermine did cool out well. He also worked her eight days from the race on purpose, to give her more time to regroup from what was her final work for the Apple Blossom. Werner will monitor her closely up to the race, and said if she is not her normal self, and not as strong as he would like, she would pass on the Apple Blossom. She is to be ridden by Eddie Castro.

Baghdaria, a winner of three Grade 3 races in 2006, is also pointing for the Apple Blossom. She is scheduled to fly in from Churchill Downs on Wednesday, said her trainer, Tom Amoss. He said Baghdaria would be ridden by Eddie Razo Jr.

Other early probables are India and Lemons Forever, last year's Kentucky Oaks winner who is now stabled at Oaklawn.

Cotton Blossom heads Fantasy

Cotton Blossom is among the 3-year-old fillies that track officials expect for the 1 1/16-mile Fantasy. The field is to be drawn on Monday.

Cotton Blossom won the $200,000 Florida Oaks in her last start March 17. The Fantasy could also draw Cash Included, who was third last out in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks.

Others considered probable are Swift Temper, Time's Mistress, and High Heels, who went five furlongs in 1:00.11 here Friday under regular rider Joe Johnson.

* Leading rider John Jacinto has been suspended five racing days, from Sunday through April 10, for a riding infraction. He can ride in designated races, or stakes.