08/01/2008 11:00PM

Cherokee Artist taking derby shot

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The timing of the West Virginia Derby isn't ideal for Cherokee Artist, a colt with great potential but limited experience. Considering the alternatives, however, trainer Graham Motion figures it's worth making the road trip from the Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland to Mountaineer Racetrack in Chester, W. Va.

Cherokee Artist, still eligible for a first-level allowance but already graded-stakes-placed twice in his four starts, seems to fit well with the 11 other 3-year-olds he will face in Saturday's Grade 3, $750,000 West Virginia Derby.

The 1 1/8-mile race, which will be shown on ESPN as part of a broadcast from 5 to 6 p.m. Eastern, tops an all-stakes nine-race card that begins at 2 p.m.

Cherokee Artist comes into the West Virginia Derby just three weeks after a stretch-long duel in which he and jockey Garrett Gomez finished a half-length behind Magical Forest in the Grade 3 Barbaro at Delaware Park. Although Magical Forest, entered in Sunday's Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, and Cherokee Artist did enough bumping in the stretch to prompt a stewards' inquiry, there was no change in the order of finish.

"The horse might have drifted in on us, but Garrett said he felt there was no solid contact," Motion said. "I'm disappointed we didn't win, but it was a very good effort."

Motion said he was reluctant to bring back Cherokee Artist so soon, but liked his other options - the Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 23 and the Pennsylvania Derby on Labor Day - even less.

"The Travers would have been really ambitious, and the Pennsylvania Derby is so far off," Motion said. "This horse has been thrown into the deep end rather quickly as the result of his success. He seems to be doing good, and he ran so well last time that we figured we'd take a shot here."

Considering that Cherokee Artist finished 2 1/2 lengths ahead of the probable West Virginia Derby favorite, Z Fortune, when second in the Grade 2 Ohio Derby, and still has tons of upside, Motion's gamble seems worthwhile.

Gomez will ride again on Saturday.

Z Fortune will attempt to give trainer Steve Asmussen his third win in the West Virginia Derby in its last four runnings. His form has tailed off since he finished second in the Arkansas Derby. In three subsequent starts, Z Fortune was 10th in the Kentucky Derby, third in the Ohio Derby as the 3-2 favorite, and seventh of eight as the 3-5 choice in the Iowa Derby.

Z Fortune has lost six in a row since taking the Grade 3 Lecomte at Fair Grounds in January. Coincidentally, the Asmussen-trained Zanjero had also lost six straight until winning last year's West Virginia Derby by a nose.

Z Fortune and Recapturetheglory, winner of the Grade 2 Illinois Derby in April, are the only horses in the field who have come close to the Beyer Speed Figure par of 103 for the West Virginia Derby. Since his career-best 102 Beyer in the Illinois Derby, Recapturetheglory has been fifth in the Kentucky Derby and fourth as the even-money favorite in the Grade 3 Northern Dancer at Churchill Downs.

My Pal Charlie looks dangerous after finishing second in the Northern Dancer, a productive race. The winner, Pyro, returned to finish second in last weekend's Grade 2 Jim Dandy at Saratoga. Third-place Visionaire came back to win an optional claimer at Saratoga with a 98 Beyer.

Three horses could challenge if they move forward off their best races: Ready Set, who finished a head behind Cherokee Artist in the Barbaro; the Larry Jones-trained Proud Kentuckian, a winner of three straight, including two optional claiming races against older horses; and Marble Cliff, facing open company for the first time after dominating Ohio-breds by 13 lengths in the $100,000 Cleveland Gold Cup.