03/20/2007 12:00AM

Change of venue a critical choice

Jeff Coady/Coady Photography
Trainer Larry Jones is regularly aboard to gallop Hard Spun.

Larry Jones is relying on the instincts that have governed his 25 years of training racehorses. Although his latest stable star, Hard Spun, ran well enough last month in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park to earn a Beyer Speed Figure of 95, Jones still had an uneasy feeling about how the colt had trained over the Oaklawn track.

"I could just tell he was having to do too much and work too hard," said Jones, who normally gets aboard the colt for his morning gallops.

If Hard Spun goes on to make an impact on the Triple Crown trail, it will not be difficult to determine a major turning point. In somewhat of an unconventional decision, Jones abruptly plucked Hard Spun out of his large string at Oaklawn and had him moved to Florence, Ky., where the colt has been in training for nearly two weeks for the $500,000 Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park, which will be run for the 36th time Saturday.

Hard Spun, who incurred his first defeat in five career starts when he finished fourth in the Feb. 19 Southwest, is expected to be a solid favorite in the Grade 2 Lane's End. As many as 14 horses were expected to be entered in the Lane's End on Wednesday, possibly among them Forefathers, a speedy colt who would figure as a major pace factor and early challenger to Hard Spun.

Hard Spun, a Pennsylvania-bred by the late sire Danzig, was purchased privately for $400,000 by the Fox Hill Farms of Rick Porter at the 2005 Keeneland September yearling sale after the colt failed to bring a slightly higher reserve. Selected and initially trained by John Servis, with whom Porter parted ways last May after a 12-year business relationship, Hard Spun was "a late-bloomer," Porter said Tuesday from his home in Hobe Sound, Fla. "He was a May foal, a little premature, but both John and Larry always said he had a lot of talent."

While still developing and being shielded from more demanding races within his division, Hard Spun invariably flaunted devastating speed as he easily won his first four starts, with the last one, the Jan. 13 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds, being the most impressive. Having trained most of his 2-year-old season at Delaware Park, then briefly over the synthetic Tapeta surface at Fair Hill - "Larry said he thought he handled that kind of track extremely well," said Porter - the colt moved with the rest of the Jones stable to Oaklawn around the first of the year.

"Pretty much off the start, you could tell that [Oaklawn] wasn't his favorite track, either to train on or breeze on," Jones said Tuesday. "I thought that after a while he'd be okay, but it was just one of those deals. He just was not the horse for this course."

Jones's wife and assistant, Cindy, accompanied Hard Spun to Turfway, where the colt has posted two bullet workouts over Polytrack, the latest coming Monday as the final major move toward the 1 1/8-mile Lane's End.

"We feel like we've made the right choice at this point," said Jones.

Jones is keenly aware that the Lane's End will be a crucial yardstick in determining whether Hard Spun should proceed further along the Derby trail.

Jones said that if all goes well Hard Spun will run next in the April 14 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, also over Polytrack.

"But that mostly depends on how tough the Lane's End is for him to win, or participate in," Jones said.

Hard Spun will be ridden, as he has been in all five previous races, by Mario Pino, the Maryland veteran who is closing in on 6,000 career victories.

"Anyone who watches simulcast races around the country knows the name Mario Pino," said Jones. "He's absolutely a phenomenal rider. Hopefully this will be an opportunity for him to draw a top horse."

Jones said he and Porter have committed to sticking with Pino "at least through the Derby," but obviously the colt must take them there first.

Jones said he was disappointed that Hard Spun lost in the Southwest, "but knowing the circumstances, we were pleased."

"He's getting better every race," Jones said, "and he matched his lifetime-high Beyer," having also earned a 95 in the Lecomte. "I felt he gave us a good effort [in the Southwest], and although I wished he could've won it, I understand why he didn't. That's what led us to the decision we made and why we're looking forward to Saturday."