03/20/2009 12:00AM

Breen closes in on trip to Derby


Life is a series of logical progressions, according to Kelly Breen. And through small, sometimes undefinable, steps, great things can ultimately result.

And so it is that Breen is one step away from the Kentucky Derby. As the trainer of West Side Bernie for owners George and Lori Hall, one of the favorites for the $500,000 Lane's End Stakes on Saturday, he is doing everything in his power not to make the mental leap from the mundane tasks required of him and his stable star this week at Turfway Park to the paddock on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.

"I'm really trying not to think about it," said Breen, a lifelong New Jersey resident. "I'm really trying to wait until after Saturday to even go there. It's just too early right now."

Breen, 39, began his racetrack career at 16, working through the ranks and doing what he had to do to meet one goal after the next. His formative years were spent under the wing of Ben Perkins Sr., the New Jersey icon who is in semi-retirement today as an adviser to Ebby Novak of New Farm in New Jersey.

"Ben has been about as close as possible to a father figure to me," Breen said Tuesday from Turfway in Florence, Ky. "I guess I was a pretty good student - and a good student doesn't have to be told. You just pick it up. Ben is one of the best horsemen around, as far as I'm concerned."

As a longtime exercise rider for Perkins, Breen got on such top horses as Appealing Skier, Forest Wildcat, and Confide. He briefly went out on his own with a small public stable in 1993-94, returned to the Perkins fold for another five years or so, then went solo for good in 1999, ultimately rising to become the leading trainer at his longtime stomping grounds, Monmouth Park in New Jersey, in 2005 and 2006.

Although he winters in Florida, he and his wife, Melissa, and two young children make their permanent home in Farmingdale, N.J., some 30 minutes south of Monmouth. The training titles at Monmouth are "something they can never take away from me," he said with pride. "Through what I did there at Monmouth, that's how I met George and Lori Hall, and that's how I'm in the position I'm in today."

Breen has been the private trainer for the Halls of New York City for about a year. Currently based at the Palm Meadows training center with 20 horses, Breen has seen West Side Bernie progress into what he calls a more mature racehorse in a five-race career that includes a victory in the Kentucky Cup Juvenile last fall at Turfway, a runner-up finish in the $1 million Delta Jackpot in December, and a third-place finish in the Jan. 31 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park in his lone start this year.

"He's come a long way since his first race, when he was very green," said Breen, who sent West Side Bernie on a van from Florida on Friday and has been exercising him in the mornings over the Polytrack surface at Turfway. "Now he's more focused, he's running straighter. His head is on more straight. We're looking for a big race out of him Saturday."

Breen has retained the services of Hall of Fame jockey Edgar Prado for the 1 1/8-mile Lane's End, for which Turfway officials were expecting 10 or 11 3-year-olds when entries were drawn Wednesday at the annual Call to the Post luncheon at the track. Prado won the Lane's End last year aboard Adriano.

The Lane's End, along with another race for 3-year-olds, the $100,000 Rushaway Stakes, will be part of a live, one-hour ESPN2 telecast that begins at 5 p.m. Eastern.

Breen had the March 28 Florida Derby as a logical option for West Side Bernie, but he said several factors led him to Turfway, including positive karma deduced from "the way everything went right" when the colt won the Kentucky Cup Juvenile last September.

With $225,760 in graded earnings already, probably enough to make the 20-horse cut for the May 2 Kentucky Derby, West Side Bernie is in a position to clinch a Derby berth with a big effort Saturday. Breen said he would most likely train the colt toward the Derby under those circumstances.

Perkins had one Derby starter, Bombay Duck - last of 15 in 1975.

"Ben's told me more than enough times about the whole experience," Breen said. "He says it takes two minutes to win the Kentucky Derby and a lifetime to get there."