03/13/2008 11:00PM

Asmussen duo chasing WinStar cash

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It wasn't what he said, but what he didn't say.

Trainer Steve Asmussen will send out Poni Colada and Ablaze With Spirit, two major contenders Sunday at Sunland Park in the $600,000 WinStar Derby. Asmussen called the WinStar Derby "a very good financial opportunity for two colts coming off stakes wins," while conspicuously failing to mention that neither colt is a serious Kentucky Derby candidate.

And for good reason. Despite its status as one of the richest early-season races in North America for 3-year-olds, the WinStar Derby has never been graded - and earnings in ungraded races are not credited toward eligibility in case more than 20 are entered in the Kentucky Derby. Thus the WinStar Derby is once again in the shadow of the $300,000 Tampa Bay Derby, $300,000 Rebel Stakes, and $200,000 San Felipe Stakes, the other Derby preps being run this weekend.

Still, the sixth running of the 1 1/8-mile WinStar Derby shapes up as a competitive race and an excellent wagering opportunity. And as often happens on any given day in any given race in this country, Asmussen is right in the middle of it.

Poni Colada enters off an eight-length triumph in the Borderland Derby at Sunland, while Ablaze With Spirit wheels back from a rallying score in the restricted Jim's Orbit at Sam Houston. The Asmussen pair will start from posts 1 and 3, respectively.

"They're both coming off good races and face questionable company," said Asmussen. "The mile and an eighth seems within their realm."

Ablaze With Spirit, purchased privately by the Heiligbrodt Racing Stable before earning a 90 Beyer Speed Figure in his latest win versus Texas-breds, will be ridden by Garrett Gomez, one of a handful of nationally renowned jockeys at Sunland Park for the day.

Asmussen, who will watch the WinStar Derby via simulcast in New Orleans, said he is "very curious to see how Ablaze With Spirit runs back. We'd like to see if he can solidify that form."

Ten 3-year-olds were entered in the WinStar Derby, and several others besides the Asmussen duo are legitimate threats. Winsome Charm, sandwiched between the Asmussen horses in post 2, looks like a serious wire-to-wire danger under Tyler Baze, having earned a 100 Beyer as the runner-up two starts back in the Sunshine Millions before leading much of the way and settling for second in his last race, a Feb. 22 allowance at Santa Anita.

Liberty Bull (post 10) also looms a major factor. Winner of the Smarty Jones Stakes in January, the Holy Bull colt most recently finished a closing third in the Southwest. Both races were at a mile at Oaklawn Park.

"Obviously asking the colt to go another eighth of a mile may be pushing him to the limit," said trainer Tom Amoss. "But he seems to fit with this caliber, and he's got some ability. Plus the purse is terrific, so we're going to be there trying."

Trainer Doug O'Neill, who won the WinStar Derby with Excessivepleasure in 2003 and Thor's Echo in 2005, is represented this year by No Jepordy (post 4), most recently a distant third behind Poni Colada in the Feb. 16 Borderland Derby.

Bob Baffert, who won this race two years ago with Wanna Runner, will send out a maiden, Screen to Screen (post 9), whose ownership partners include Ol Memorial Stable. One of the Ol Memorial principals, Rick Pitino, will have at least one eye peeled away from the race when the University of Louisville basketball team he coaches gets its NCAA tournament seeding on Sunday.

Screen to Screen is one of two maidens in the field. The other, Capetown Royal (post 6), is trained by Henry Dominguez, who won this race last year with Song of Navarone.

The balance of the field is Banker's Way (post 5), Cape Time (7), and Deputyville (8).

The WinStar Derby, sponsored by the breeding and racing powerhouse located in Versailles, Ky., is carded as the 11th of 12 races, with post time set for 5:28 p.m. Mountain. TVG will provide live coverage. First post is 12:55 p.m.

The WinStar Derby anchors the richest program of the year at Sunland, which is located just west of El Paso, Texas, in south-central New Mexico. Also on tap for Sunday are the $200,000 WinStar Sunland Park Oaks (race 9), a 1 1/16-mile race for 3-year-old fillies; the $100,000 Harry W. Henson Breeders' Cup Handicap (race 10), for older fillies and mares at a mile; and the $100,000 New Mexico Breeders' Derby (race 8), for 3-year-old statebreds at a mile.

Sunland is combining the four straight stakes into a pick four wager.

o Author Steve Davidowitz will host a handicapping seminar and book signing prior to the races in the Signature Showroom.