03/28/2010 12:00AM

Conveyance seeks to remain perfect

Benoit & Associates
Undefeated Conveyance will seek his fifth straight win Sunday in the $800,000 Sunland Park Derby.

Last year, an also-ran from the Sunland Park Derby upended the racing world when he won the Kentucky Derby at 50-1. Sunday, it will be all eyes on the Sunland Derby.

New Mexico's showcase race is now considered a genuine Triple Crown prep because of Mine That Bird's Derby win and the fact the race will be run as a graded stakes for the first time since its 2003 introduction. With an $800,000 purse to boot, the Grade 3 Sunland Derby has the potential to impact who might get in the starting gate the first Saturday in May.

The presence of Conveyance, one of the top-ranked colts for the Kentucky Derby, gives the 1 1/8-mile Sunland Derby added intrigue. He is putting a 4-for-4 record on the line against eight rivals, including Tempted to Tapit, who like Conveyance is listed on Daily Racing Form's current Derby Watch, and Nacho Friend, who finished third in the Grade 3 Gotham at Aqueduct. Adding further depth to the field is Classical Slew, who is making his two-turn debut after finishing third to Sidney's Candy in the Grade 2 San Vicente at Santa Anita.

The Sunland Derby "is getting very competitive," said Bob Baffert, the trainer of Conveyance who is seeking his second win in the race behind Wanna Runner's score in 2006.

The Sunland Derby is one of six stakes worth a cumulative $1.4 million on Sunday's card. Baffert will be well-represented. He also brought Ellafitz to town for the $200,000 Sunland Park Oaks and Freedom Star for the $100,000 Harry Henson in what is something of a homecoming for the trainer.

"When I was like 12, 13, my father and I used to drive over there from Arizona," Baffert said. "To me, it was big time. I've always liked Sunland."

Baffert is now big-time, a Hall of Fame trainer who has several prospects for this year's Kentucky Derby. The highest profile horse on the list is champion Lookin At Lucky, while Conveyance looks to continue to build his reputation. He is a two-time Grade 3 winner, with front-running scores in both the San Rafael at Santa Anita in January, and the Southwest at Oaklawn in February.

"He's a very fast horse," Baffert said. "When the gate comes open, he just goes."

Conveyance made his first start on dirt at Oaklawn, in what was his first race outside of Southern California. Now, the challenge is distance, as he will be making his first start beyond a mile in the Sunland Derby.

"It's a good test for him," said Baffert, who trains Conveyance for Zabeel Racing. "This race, it seems like there's always a lot of pace. We'll see how he handles that situation."

Martin Garcia has the mount on Conveyance from post 3.

Tempted to Tapit was an 11-length maiden winner at Aqueduct in January, then came back in his next start and finished second in the Grade 2 Risen Star at Fair Grounds on Feb. 20.

"I thought it was a great step for him, coming out of a maiden race, moving into a Grade 2," said Steve Klesaris, who trains Tempted to Tapit for Gainesway Stable. "He got away a little flat-footed but got right into the race after that."

Tempted to Tapit was beaten slightly more than a length in the Risen Star and seems to be moving forward for his next test Sunday.

"I really think he's stepped up mentally," said Klesaris, who has given the mount to David Cohen.

Nacho Friend was making his first start since July in the Gotham on March 6, and finished three lengths behind winner Awesome Act.

"He ran a 93 Beyer his first race going long against graded competition," trainer Kelly Breen said of the Gotham. "Hopefully, he moves forward off that, and if he moves forward, I think we have a chance to have a classic-style racehorse."

Breen likes the added ground for Nacho Friend, whom he described as a "robust" horse with a long stride. He is to be ridden by Joe Bravo.

Streaming video of the Sunland Derby will be available at ntra.com. The race is the 12th of 13, with a scheduled post of 5:45 p.m. Mountain.