04/12/2007 12:00AM

Curlin out to top himself

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Curlin has won his two starts in showstopping fashion and can head to the Kentucky Derby undefeated with a win Saturday in the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. He will be a strong favorite in the 1 1/8-mile race following his impressive victories, the first a maiden sprint romp and the next a rout of the Grade 3 Rebel Stakes here March 17.

Curlin will face nine others in the Arkansas Derby, which closes out the meet and is the final leg of the Premier Pick 4, which also includes the Grade 1 Blue Grass and Grade 2 Commonwealth from Keeneland and Oaklawn's Instant Racing BC.

Curlin comes into the race off a sweeping 5 1/4-length win in the Rebel. The race was his first start in a stakes, his first start around two turns, and it was just one race removed from his stunning 12o3/4-length maiden score at Gulfstream on Feb. 3. Saturday, he will attempt to trump himself once again, and his trainer, Steve Asmussen, says he is poised to do just that.

"The question can only be answered in the afternoon and with competition," he said, "but the talent is there. He's capable of great things.

"We all know what can happen in a horse race. Nothing's guaranteed. I just can't tell you how happy I am this is who we get to lead over."

Curlin will face some new challenges in the Arkansas Derby. The first is the distance, which he should handle, said Asmussen. The other is an inside post in a large field, which means he might encounter traffic for the first time or get dirt kicked in his face.

"He does have a two-turn race in him now, that being probably the only thing that we have eliminated as far as new questions," said Asmussen. "The race unfolded ideally for him last time. That isn't always going to be the case."

But if a horse is suited to handle adversity, it is Curlin, the trainer said. "I think that his state of mind is excellent," said Asmussen.

Curlin will break from post 2 under Robby Albarado. Asmussen is looking for a stalking trip similar to the one he had in the Rebel.

"Hopefully, he's away a little cleaner," he said. "And he needs to run the same type of race. He needs to settle and be composed and finish up."

Deadly Dealer looks like the lone speed in the Arkansas Derby. He will be making his two-turn debut following front-running wins in a maiden special weight and a first-level allowance in his last two starts.

"I'd be surprised if he wasn't on the front end," said Todd Pletcher, who trains Deadly Dealer and has given the mount to John Velazquez.

Pletcher has several reasons to believe Deadly Dealer, a son of Concerto, will handle the new distance demands Saturday.

"He's certainly bred to," he said. "And it looks like he finished up pretty strongly at seven-eighths" in his last race.

"Watching him train since then," said Pletcher, "he always finishes his breezes well and gallops out strongly afterward. So, that's encouraging. But, you never know until you try it."

Officer Rocket has had troubled trips in each of his last two starts, closing for second in the Rebel and second in the $250,000 Southwest here Feb. 19.

"You hate to make excuses for horses, but different things happened to him that cost him a little bit," said Bob Holthus, who trains Officer Rocket. "Curlin got the jump on him last time, and the time before we got boxed in between horses."

Flying First Class was the Rebel favorite and finished eighth, one start after winning his maiden in a sprint with a Beyer Speed Figure of 107. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas blamed himself for the loss, citing a lack of fitness.

"I think we're going to see the horse that I thought I had last time, when I misread him so badly," said Lukas. "I feel a lot better about him. Not only did he get a lot out of that race, I'm sure, but he came back to work three other works, which were all very good. So, I feel like we're in a different spot than we were. Now, we've got to prove it on Saturday."