02/19/2008 1:00AM

Denis of Cork handles all challenges

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Denis of Cork handled a number of new variables with composure Monday, when he ran arguably his best race to date in winning the Grade 3, $250,000 Southwest at Oaklawn. He tackled the step up to stakes company, shipping to run for the first time, and a surface new to him, all while earning a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 96.

"We're very happy," said David Carroll, who trains the Fair Grounds-based Denis of Cork for William K. Warren Jr. and his wife, Suzanne. "I learned a lot. I shipped him over here Thursday, and I watched him all weekend, just how he shipped and his disposition, and he settled in beautifully. He's got a great mind on him and took everything in - very professional."

Oaklawn drew a crowd of 29,018, and Denis of Cork was poised while being saddled in the track's sunken indoor paddock. On the racetrack, he ran his record to 3 for 3 in the Southwest, with his other wins coming in a maiden special weight at Churchill Downs in November and a allowance at Fair Grounds in January.

"This is three different distances, three different racetracks," Carroll said after the Southwest. "He's just going to gain in confidence."

Denis of Cork returned to New Orleans on Tuesday. He is a candidate to return to Oaklawn next month for the Grade 2, $300,000 Rebel on March 15.

"We'll watch him for a few days, and the plan would be to come back for the Rebel," Carroll said.

Denis of Cork won the Southwest by 2 1/4 lengths. He closed from more than 10 lengths back in the one-mile race, which ended at the sixteenth pole, as all mile races do at Oaklawn.

"He finished so well, galloped out real nice," said Robby Albarado, who rode Denis of Cork. "We got to the second wire still in front. It means a lot. The Rebel is a mile and a sixteenth."

Different strokes for same Oaks

Trainer Larry Jones now finds himself following two different roads to this year's Kentucky Oaks. He has had Proud Spell, the runner-up in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile, on the Fair Grounds path to the big dance. On Sunday, another of his trainees, Eight Belles, put herself on the Oaklawn road to the Oaks with a 13 1/2-length win in the second division of the $50,000 Martha Washington Stakes.

It was the second straight blowout win for Eight Belles, who had romped by 15 lengths in an allowance at Fair Grounds in January. The daughter of Unbridled's Song was making her stakes debut in the Martha Washington, and after racing in sixth early, she quickly overtook the leaders on the final turn of the one-mile race under Terry Thompson.

"Whenever it came time Terry just let her out a notch, and he said he chirped to her and she just rebroke," Jones said. "That's her. She can really eat up the ground."

Eight Belles is an imposing 16-3 hands tall and 1,150 pounds, Jones said. She is expected to run next in the Grade 3, $100,000 Honeybee at Oaklawn on March 16.

"More than likely, she'll be here for the Honeybee, then the Fantasy, and hopefully onto the Kentucky Oaks," Jones said.

The Grade 2, $250,000 Fantasy at Oaklawn is on April 6, about a month before the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs on May 2.

Pure Clan, a top candidate for the Kentucky Oaks, is on schedule to make her season debut in the Honeybee. Trainer Bob Holthus said he plans to work her Thursday. Pure Clan is undefeated, with her last win coming in the Grade 2 Golden Rod at Churchill Downs.

Plans for Sky Mom, the winner of the first division of the Martha Washington, are yet to be determined, but she will be considered for the Honeybee, trainer Steve Asmussen said.

Asmussen reflects on 4,000

Asmussen won the 4,000th race of his training career Sunday at Oaklawn, when J.J.'s Bud captured the third race. Asmussen is the eighth trainer to reach the milestone, and he is thrilled to be part of what is an elite club of horsemen.

"It's extremely significant because of the company," he said.

Asmussen said while he did not know all of the trainers on the list personally, those he does - D. Wayne Lukas, Richard Hazelton, and Jerry Hollendorfer - he respects "a great deal."

"I've met them and know them well, and I don't know how to say it other than I definitely have always considered them horsemen.

"And Scott Lake, he was the most recent to 4,000, and obviously the last few years it's been fun with him."

Asmussen and Lake have been trading spots atop the leader board for trainer wins in North America.

Asmussen said his "immediate" goals are to win the Dubai World Cup and the Kentucky Derby. He has top contenders for those races in Curlin, the reigning Horse of the Year, and Pyro, winner of the Grade 3, $300,000 Risen Star at Fair Grounds.

* There is a $23,479 pick-six carryover for Thursday.