05/19/2008 12:00AM

Busy track on starry morning

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The time to see the best horses in Kentucky was not this past weekend at Churchill Downs, although several good races, including the Matt Winn Stakes, were contested.

Rather, it was Monday morning, a dark day at the track, when seemingly one top stakes horse after another worked over the Churchill Downs main track, including the 2007 Horse of the Year, Curlin, and the third-place finisher from this year's Kentucky Derby, Denis of Cork.

Curlin, prepping for a start in the Grade 1, $750,000 Stephen Foster Handicap on June 14, breezed five furlongs in 1:02.80, while Denis of Cork went the same distance in 1:01 in preparation for a start against Big Brown in the June 7 Belmont Stakes.

Also breezing at Churchill on Monday were Cowtown Cat, last year's Illinois Derby winner, who went six furlongs in 1:12.40; Tessa Blue, winner of the Grade 3 Indiana Oaks in 2007, who breezed five furlongs in 1:01.40; and what seemed like a small army of trainer Steve Asmussen's top horses.

Besides Curlin, who is coming off a victory in the Dubai World Cup, Asmussen worked, among others, the Saratoga Special winner Kodiak Kowboy (five furlongs in 1:02.80), the Louisiana Derby winner Pyro (five furlongs in 1:04.80), Arkansas Derby runner-up Z Fortune (five furlongs in 1:02.40), and the 2007 West Virginia Derby winner, Zanjero (four furlongs in 49.80 seconds).

As for Curlin, "I thought he went extremely well," Asmussen said.

He said Curlin's Monday breeze, which came in company with a maiden owned by Stonestreet Stable that Asmussen did not name, was to "get him in rhythm" following two easier works at Churchill Downs earlier this month.

He said he was pleased with the works from Pyro and Z Fortune, noting that Pyro was not asked to do as much as Z Fortune, who is preparing for a start in the Grade 2 Ohio Derby at Thistledown on May 31.

Pyro, like Curlin, is being prepared for a June 14 start at Churchill Downs, with his target race being the Grade 3 Northern Dancer Stakes on the Stephen Foster undercard.

Like Z Fortune, Zanjero is likely headed out of town for his next stakes engagement. Hiz breeze Monday was in preparation for a start in the $400,000 Lone Star Park Handicap on May 26.

Denis of Cork looking sharper

Denis of Cork's workout delighted trainer David Carroll following a Kentucky Derby effort that left Denis of Cork "a tired horse," Carroll said.

Although Robby Albarado has the mount in the Belmont, jockey James Lopez worked Denis of Cork Monday, and the colt responded, galloping out to Carroll's satisfaction.

Carroll understands the difficulty of the task that lies ahead, knowing no horse has ever come close to challenging Big Brown, including Denis of Cork, who closed from last to finish 8 1/4 lengths behind Big Brown in the Kentucky Derby.

"The Belmont is Big Brown's race to lose," he said. "It is going to take an exceptional performance to beat him or for something to happen to Big Brown for him to lose."

Carroll knows better than most what it takes to have a Belmont winner, having been the exercise rider of the 1989 Belmont winner, Easy Goer, for trainer Shug McGaughey.

Carroll said he does not train Denis of Cork in the same manner as McGaughey did Easy Goer, noting the physical differences in the two horses.

"My horse is slightly made," he said. "I can't train him as aggressively. But I don't need to."

A to the Croft trying a grass race

The Grade 1 Spinaway and Alcibiades runner-up, A to the Croft, is set to make her turf debut in Wednesday's fourth race, a first-level allowance at 1 1/16 miles.

Trainer Ken McPeek could have opted to conservatively keep her on dirt and run her in Wednesday's seventh race, 1 1/8-mile dirt allowance, but said he has wanted to test her on turf.

He said she has an efficient stride and is "low in her heels," indications he hopes point to her enjoying racing on turf.

He expects her class to lead to a good performance. "Good horses run over anything," he said.

A to the Croft, a 3-year-old daughter of Menifee, ran seventh in her last race, the May 2 Kentucky Oaks.