04/15/2010 11:00PM

Derby buzz starts early in Louisville

Marcel Langevin/Vassar Photography
Connemara could earn a spot in the Derby with a win at Keeneland.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Everybody can get started now. Bob Baffert's back in town. The Hall of Fame trainer was at Churchill Downs early Thursday to give an unofficial kickoff to the run-up to Kentucky Derby 136, sending Lookin At Lucky and Conveyance out for serious workouts on another unseasonably warm morning.

"Day One," Baffert said afterward. "We're okay."

For 16 days out from the May 1 Derby, Thursday seemed inordinately busy at Churchill. In a more typical year, the main focus of the Kentucky racing circuit hasn't yet shifted from Keeneland, where the Coolmore Lexington Stakes normally holds fans' interest as a potentially key final piece to the Derby puzzle. But only Connemara, one of the 12 3-year-olds entered Saturday in the $300,000 Lexington at Keeneland, is considered a possible Derby starter, so the buzz in Louisville already is a little ahead of the curve.

For Baffert, who won the Derby three times in a five-year span (1997, 1998, 2002), the eight years since his last victory have him nearly pawing the Churchill ground he worships. He was happy with how both his colts worked Thursday, with Lookin At Lucky getting five furlongs in 1:01.20, just minutes before Conveyance went the same distance in 1:00.60.

"Coming from the synthetics in California, they're not really used to the dirt, so it was good to see them work as well as they did," Baffert said. "They'll both work two more times."

:: DERBY 136:



Baffert said Lookin At Lucky will not wear blinkers in the Derby as he did in his two previous starts as a 3-year-old, in the Rebel Stakes and Santa Anita Derby. Lookin At Lucky, the 2-year-old champion of 2009, encountered traffic problems in both starts, and although Baffert said the blinkers were not necessarily the reason, "he's been a little more antsy than he should be. We need to settle him some more."

Baffert called the speedy Conveyance, who incurred his first defeat when second as an odds-on favorite in the Sunland Derby last out, "a good horse. He jumps a long ways. We didn't really let him run the way he likes at Sunland, but that's not going to happen in the Derby. We're not going to grab him. He's more like the War Emblem type," referring to his 2002 Derby winner, "the kind of horse you've just got to let him run."

One other Derby prospect, Jackson Bend, breezed Thursday, going a half-mile in 47.40 seconds in company. His Nick Zito-trained stablemate Ice Box was scheduled to work Friday.

Jackson Bend, the Wood Memorial runner-up, is one of a handful of horses whose connections are waiting to see if they will make the Derby because their graded stakes earnings are barely short of the 20-horse cutoff. One possible dropout from the 20 who are in, Noble's Promise, returned to the track Thursday for the first time since a troubled fifth-place finish in the Arkansas Derby last Saturday.

"We vanned him down from Lexington to Churchill very early this morning, and he settled in real nice," trainer Ken McPeek said Thursday afternoon at Keeneland. "He jogged a mile and galloped a mile at about 9, no problems at all.

"There's not going to be any firm decisions made for a while. I still tentatively have him scheduled to work Tuesday or Wednesday, but first we want to make sure these issues we're dealing with are resolved."

Noble's Promise incurred cuts and scrapes that McPeek said will easily heal, so a minor lung infection is the main unknown making him noncommittal.

Several other Derby horses were out for exercise Thursday at Churchill, including the John Sadler pair of Sidney's Candy, who went to the track for a 1 1/2-mile gallop as soon as it opened at 6 a.m. Eastern, and Line of David, who went some 30 minutes later.

"They both shipped really well," Sadler assistant Larry Benavidez said.

Sidney's Candy is scheduled to work Saturday, with jockey Joe Talamo in from California. Sadler will arrive here Monday, Benavidez said.

Also at Churchill, Todd Pletcher has Super Saver and Interactif under the care of assistant Michael McCarthy, while Pletcher remains at the Palm Meadows training center in south Florida with several of his other Derby prospects, most notably Eskendereya, the Derby favorite who is scheduled to work Sunday before shipping Tuesday to Churchill.

Meanwhile, back at Keeneland, Pletcher has what appears to be the lone live Derby hopeful in the Grade 2 Lexington with Connemara, whose $138,500 in prior graded earnings would get him into the Derby along with a Lexington win, which is worth $180,000. Jackson Bend has $230,000 in graded earnings and, as things currently stand, is the first bubble horse, followed by Backtalk ($225,916) and Make Music for Me ($218,750).

However, Pletcher has said he would not necessarily run back in two weeks, even if Connemara wins, considering the colt has never raced on anything but synthetics - and aside from that, the Lexington looks like an extremely competitive race in its own right. Clearly, the fact that the morning-line favorite, Uptowncharlybrown, has been pegged as high as 4-1 says plenty about the depth of the 1 1/16-mile Polytrack race. Others rating a serious chance include Krypton, Distorted Dave, Exhi, and Kettle River, although you wouldn't want to bet your life that none of the remaining six runners can win, either.

The Lexington, the ninth of 10 Saturday races at Keeneland, will be shown live on TVG, with post time set for 5:15 p.m. Eastern. Live streaming of the race also is available at drf.com, ntra.com, and keeneland.com.

On Thursday temperatures in Louisville and Lexington reached the mid-80s, but the forecast called for highs in the mid-60s for a stretch of several days beginning Saturday.